In honor of Veteran’s Day, I offer you the free story below titled “Private First Class.”
Long ago when I took “Private First Class” to my critique group, one member said it was “inane” while another proclaimed it the best thing I’d written. I’m sure this thinly fictionalized account of my dad’s World War II experience lies somewhere in between.
The story is part of a collection of fictionalized autobiography called The Celestial Division of Instruments. Many of the pieces have been published individually. Some day I hope to see the whole collection in print. Certainly, “Private First Class” is a work which gathers poignancy in context with the other stories.
Private First Class
Private First-Class Mitchell Nelsen, 37773149, lay in the hull of a boat. To conserve oxygen, the new recruits had been ordered to lie down except to go to the bathroom. They were packed in, Mitchell thought, like the slaves must have been, only the soldiers had cots and wool blankets and weren’t chained.
They had two and a half weeks to wonder what Germany would be like and whether they would ever see their families again. Sometimes they murmured back and forth, but often they retreated to their private sadness and fear, listening to the powerful engine that propelled them across the Atlantic to fight Hitler’s army.
Mitchell’s thoughts turned to his brother Cecile. Mitchell had three older half siblings and seven younger siblings, but only one older real brother. At fourteen, Cecile had run away from home, rode the freight train out to Montana and spent years working on various ranches, coming home only once before taking off to another ranch. It was not surprising that Cecile had ended up in the war. He’d spent most of it in England. But now he was in Germany. That idea comforted Mitchell.
He’d not planned to be here, wedged in on a cot. He’d quit working at a supply station in Provo, South Dakota, and had started to paint signs, losing his defense worker status. He’d thought the war would damn well be over before he was called to service. Instead, after training at Fort Knox, he shipped out from New York. Even though he was twenty-six, he’d never been far from home.
When Mitchell’s wife Aberdeen gave birth to Jazz on February 2, 1945, an officer informed Mitchell that this fourth child exempted him from service.
“I came this far; may as well keep going,” Mitchell said.
He couldn’t bring himself to tell the officer he had only four cents in the pocket of his uniform and no way to go home.
Now to avoid the enemy, the ship zigzagged across the Atlantic. But a German U-boat could maneuver right under them, and he’d never see his new baby girl.
The stick across the center of the folding cot prodded Mitchell awake, giving him plenty of time to reflect on the real reason he was here—the long hot summer with the mercury climbing to a hundred degrees for days in a row. He must’ve been about eight. He’d become headachy and stiff and feverish, and his mom thought he was suffering from the heat.
But when the symptoms didn’t go away and his throat started to hurt and he gasped for breath, his mom knew. His two sisters moved from their bedroom, out to the barn with the boys, while his mom nursed him, applying moist heat. His little black dog Fritzy crawled on the bed and curled beside him as though he had poliomyelitis, too.
After about a week, the fever broke, and Mitchell knew he didn’t have any crippling because Fritzy had guarded him. Still the disease had left him weak and useless around the ranch long enough for that opinion of him to solidify. It didn’t help that he had narrow shoulders, poor eyes, and a handsome face, or that his mom signed him up for violin lessons.
Then he was caught crying. He was ten. His horse Blackie had stepped into a prairie dog hole and broken his leg. One of his brothers had been on Blackie, and Mitchell felt heartbroken and furious, certain that if he’d been riding, the accident would not have happened. His father handed him a hammer and said, “You know what you need to do.”
All his life he’d seen deer hunted, cattle butchered, and pigs slaughtered, but those animals never had names. He had not felt the warmth of their life breathing between his legs. He might as well not have done it, because afterwards his oldest half-brother discovered him crying in the corner of the barn.
All these years later, in the dark hull of the ship, the memory, accompanied by the beating engine, churning water, and snoring men, blurred his vision.
He snorted at himself, wiped his eyes, and thought about how after high school, he’d followed Cecile to Montana. He’d signed up for a college class to learn stagecraft. He should have just painted a sign: I AM A PANSY.
So Mitchell had a lot to prove.
Other awake men made soft secret sounds, and he wondered what journey, what series of events, had carried each one to share this point in his life.
In Germany Mitchell felt much more comfortable than he had on the ship. His legs quivered for days, but he was surrounded by the familiar sound of accordion music and the back-home smells of cooking potatoes and cabbage. The cold biting his skin and the snow crunching under his boots felt the same, too, and he wrote to Aberdeen by V-Mail, “If it weren’t for the costumes and the language, I wouldn’t know I was in Germany.”
He learned that his brother Cecile was stationed fewer than one hundred miles away. They each arranged to be dropped off nearer the other but he still walked for thirty-two miles for the rendezvous, his rations not enough to fuel the journey. He and Cecile were both so seriously hungry when they met, their conversation had riveted on how to find something to eat. The fields were bare. They milked a cow into each other’s mouth.
Cecile might be a sergeant, but Mitchell was part of General Patton’s third army, Eighty-ninth Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. The Siegfried Line had been broken and the Americans were advancing. In their camp, a sense of victory charged the air.
In spite of his bad eyesight, Mitchell had grown up hunting deer and shooting quail. Handling a rifle was second nature. Like other country boys, he and a kid from Nebraska named Harold were assigned to ride point peep.
In small maneuverable jeeps, they would bump along in front of Troop A or travel in back to cover their tail. The Germans might have been retreating, but in their wake, they had mined the roads and created roadblocks for ambushes. They’d seriously damaged the Allies communications, too.
On his first patrol, Mitchell went out with a seasoned driver named Mike in a pared-down, olive drab jeep. They were the second of two jeeps.
Mike drove down the narrow highway along the partially frozen Mulde River. They both watched for soldiers and for jettisoned supply dumps. Or anyone moving in the trees, since escaping soldiers sometimes put on civilian clothes.
Harold, the rifleman on the lead vehicle, was so young and skinny that he didn’t have any meat to hold him in his seat. He bounced high over each rut.
Mitchell peered through the riflescope.
“Don’t worry,” Mike said. “Everybody thinks point peep is dangerous, but if there’s an ambush, they let us through.”
Mitchell didn’t find the idea of a flank attack reassuring.
Mike swerved around craters in the road with one hand on the wheel. “If you spot a Kraut through the scope, we’ll try to whistle ’em up. These soldiers now are nothing but greenhorns, so if you whistle, sometimes they’ll stick their heads up.”
“Just like rabbits,” Mitchell said.
Mike laughed. “Yup, just like rabbits.” He turned the conversation to the merits of lonely, buxom German women.
Mitchell wondered if Mike was making it all up. Mitchell had not encountered any friendly German women. When he’d hiked to meet Cecile, the stranded women had all refused even to sell him food.
The approaching roar of an American aircraft engine pulled Mitchell’s eyes toward the sky.
With his free hand still cupped to his chest to illustrate the grandeur of German breasts, Mike also looked up, laughing, puffing clouds into the crisp air.
Then the plane strafed the point jeep in front of them.
Mitchell dove from the moving vehicle into the bushes and ran through the powdery snow toward the burning vehicle. Harold’s leg protruded from the side. Mitchell crawled across the road to grab it, but the plane made another pass. Mitchell flattened to the ground and watched Harold burn to death.
The war stopped feeling like a hunting trip.
For the next week, recalling the event made him sick to his stomach, the exact feeling he’d experienced at the crunch of Blackie’s skull, but here there was nowhere to curl up and cry. Instead, Harold’s leg haunted his dreams.
Mitchell dreamed of the leg so much, he wondered later if he had somehow made his own leg a target. It happened when they were patrolling the Mulde again. He and Mike had been assigned the rear.
Mike had been jittery. He preferred the front. “If they attack from the front, it’s not an ambush.”
He’d barely spoken when gunfire cracked the icy air.
Mitchell didn’t feel the wound at first as he leapt from the jeep, so he kept moving, on his belly, along the frozen ground, to the tank up ahead. Against the snow, he knew he stood out like a steak dinner on linen. He yearned to climb inside the tank for safety, but instead he reported to the sweaty and frantic men of the carnage that lay in the jeeps behind the tank.
Then he slithered back through the machine gun and sniper fire that pocked the snow and turned up earth beneath it. He crawled under his jeep to the other side.
Mike lay in the ditch. Mitchell draped the man’s limp arm around his shoulder and heaved Mike up like a bale of hay. Mitchell could feel his own leg now, the searing pain and dripping blood, but he pulled himself and Mike to a spot where the tall dead grass curled over their bodies like a mother’s protective embrace and sprinkled them with powdery crystals.
Mitchell received the Purple Heart and Silver Star.
Mike was dead.
Some soldiers returned home with trinkets like Nazi flags, but as a parting gift, Mitchell’s sergeant gave him a fine violin and let him take Mike’s service gun, a Colt .45 semi-automatic.
Returning from their tour of duty, the soldiers crowded the deck and cheered at the sight of The Statue of Liberty.
Mitchell leaned on his crutch. “I’d rather see Stone Man Hill,” he said to the soldier next to him.
“I’d rather see some action,” the man said, even though his arm was in a sling.
The bustle of New York City was more foreign to Mitchell than Germany. He spent one of his pennies on a glass of lemonade. Soldiers parted around him, courteous of his crutch.
He drained the lemonade into the empty pit of his stomach and pictured Stone Man Hill. It stood higher than most spots on the prairie, but otherwise looked like another golden, treeless hill except for a pile of rocks on top, about sixteen feet high. A sheep man had left piled stones to mark the way to a waterhole that never failed. The stones, however, kept falling down, so in 1924 some ambitious soul went out to the hill with cement mix. He created a base and mortared the rocks together, planting a flag at the top. On the flat landscape, the monument, called The Silent Guide, could be seen from thirty-five miles away.
And now The Silent Guide called to Mitchell, fifteen hundred miles away. He could envision the flag fluttering in the blue Dakota sky. He was lonesome for the smell of Aberdeen’s hair, the soughing of wind in the cottonwood trees. He wanted to see the new baby. But his eagerness to be home was about more than that.
On the train ride he snapped open the hard, little black box and admired his medals. Many times. From a purple ribbon hung a purple heart with a gold heart inside it. On the front was a silhouette of George Washington.
A heart was a good thing. Having a heart didn’t make him a crybaby in the corner of the barn. He rubbed his thumb over the raised gold heart on the back that said: For Military Merit.
He touched the red, white and blue ribbon on his Silver Star, the third highest medal in the United States.
The two medals proclaimed he had “valor,” and valor had nothing to do with lack of tears. He couldn’t wait to show his family. He was a man, and inside the box, he had proof.
Harold was dead. Mike was dead. But he was alive. And his life felt charged with purpose.
At home, Mitchell kissed the top of his baby’s head, drawing in the fragrance, the yeasty promise, the smell of life.
His tour had been so short he and Aberdeen didn’t miss a beat in their procreation. But as hard as Mitchell struggled to recapture the intensity, nothing could ever compare with his two months in the war.
Much later Aberdeen would quip, “You might say all the rest was downhill.”
Still, every year on Jazz’s birthday, Mitchell recounted this story to her, a story of life and death when both of them were born.