This one finally gets back to stuff I've learned directly from the source, and is the crowning climax of the story. This story demanded that I write it.
NEITHER SLEEP NOR SLUMBER
1 February 1945
I’d been in Europe for over a month. We made our way from France into Belgium. Next stop: Germany. Intel said we’d almost broken through the German salient. I started thinking I might just make it out of there. The days brought little warmth, and at night it got even colder. Way too cold for a Louisiana boy, even colder than the springtime in Ohio. I lost track of the days, but Captain Schneider said we reached February.
“Hey Loot,” Pike said, sliding into the foxhole beside me. He took the edge of the blanket and joined me and Private Cole. “Any chance of you sleeping?”
“Not a bit. Cole, on the other hand,” his snoring broke the silence, “is able to sleep in formation. What’s the word from Captain?”
“We attack Krinkelt at dawn. Until then, try to get some sleep.”
“That Schneider loves his mornings.”
Pike rolled over and faced the other direction.
“You remember the day the Japs attacked us at Pearl?” I asked.
“I try not to. Especially when I’m about to go to sleep.”
“Remember when Pietrzak brought in that truckload of ammo?”
Pike shifted a little. “I think I remember you carrying one under one arm. I never got to tell you, but that always impressed me.”
“Yeah, you told me. What I didn’t tell you was that six months later, when Pete and I got reassigned to headquarters, we were assigned to unload another truck of ammo. I started bragging about that day in front of everybody.”
“Oh yeah? How’d that work out for you?”
“I tried to pick one up, and it wouldn’t even budge.”
John stood up in front of me, on his own, as though he was trying to walk. He kicked one leg into the air and meant to step forward when he was picked up and whisked away. Lou held him up, his legs kicking, hoping to reach the ground. I reached for my son, who looked twice as big as I remembered him, but he disappeared with his mother into the blackness.
I heard fireworks going off over my head. Mortar shells crashed into the trees. Every explosion lit up the sky and sent tree branches falling all around us. Five minutes and it was over, but our own mortars would soon crank up and return fire.
“Cole still asleep over there?” Pike asked.
“I heard him snoring over the shells. Maybe they started firing to shut him up.”
Pike sighed and lay back. Silence surrounded the company. I think we all tried to do the same.
He that keepeth Israel shall neither sleep nor slumber. There was a woman’s voice floating somewhere around me. She repeated, He that keepeth Israel shall neither sleep nor slumber; this time I recognized her as Nell Kelley, my mother-in-law. It was the first time I had heard a woman’s voice since we made it to the front line. I looked at my watch when my ears quit ringing. An hour from now, it would be dawn. I shook the other two men on my way up, then began waking the rest of my platoon. Captain Schneider was awake before anybody else, warming himself with a cigarette.
“Time to go turn off that alarm clock,” Schneider told me.
“Thought you liked getting up early, sir.”
“I like getting up on my own. That’s why I hate hearing Reveille.” He finished one cigarette and lit another. I accepted the one he offered. “Personnel change: Pike will be your Platoon Sergeant. Engels comes back today, and he and Daniel will lead 1st Platoon. That won’t be a problem, now will it?”
“Very well then, Lieutenant. Another change of plans: we’re attacking ASAP. Go wake your men.”
2 February 1945
For the first time under Captain Schneider’s command, we launched a sneak attack. No mortars, no covering fire, not until the Germans opened fire themselves. Schneider didn’t even build a stick diagram this time to show us what we were doing.
Once the men formed up, Schneider looked down one side of the line, then the other. He set his eyes on the Germans and, with an arm motion, he started walking. Every man scanned the line ahead looking for the enemy’s position.
Up ahead, I saw what looked like a machine gun nest. Just when I tried to focus on it, Schneider charged forward. He lobbed a smoke grenade, followed by several others from the men of 1st Platoon. The red haze spread and floated upward. Rifle fire erupted from the cloud.
“Get down!” Schneider ordered. The woods around us provided some cover from the bullets flying everywhere. “Call it in, Brewer!” he said, pointing directly in front of him.
“Distance 3-5-0, bearing 0-8-5,” I shouted into Cole’s radio. The smoke in the air made it hard to breathe. Our wall of protection rose higher and shells pounded the enemy position.
“Charge ahead, full speed!” Schneider ordered.
“Sir, we still have over a hundred yards to cover,” I replied.
“I said charge, Lieutenant. Do you need a refresher on how to charge?”
“No, sir!” We approached the smoke wall and started clearing foxholes, one squad apiece. As soon as we got through the smoke, German 88s fired on us.
“Back up! Back up!” I shouted. I heard some of our men return fire. “Pike! Tell those men to stand down before they give away our position!”
“Sorry, sir,” he said. It was too late. The smoke lifted a few feet and our cover was gone.
“L.T., we got Captain on the radio,” Cole said. “He says neutralize that pillbox up on the hill.”
Up above, I saw a concrete bunker with a machine barrel sticking out of it. “Pike, call in the mortars on that position. Gunners return their fire!”
Corporal Dawson knelt beside me, awaiting orders.
“Take 1st squad and move around to the left. I’ll take 2nd and get there from the right. First squad that gets there puts a grenade inside that little hole. Flush ’em out and be ready to shoot ’em.”
“You sure about this, L.T.?”
“I’m sure, now get moving!”
Dawson waved once and his squad took off like a pack of tigers.
“2nd squad, move out on me!” Up until that point, the gun barrel swept left to right. The minute the two squads started moving, it pointed directly at me. The gunner fired off a round, and I felt my legs fall out from underneath me. “Get down, take cover!” I shouted when I landed on my face in the snow.
“Stay still, Loot,” Pike whispered, covering me. “Don’t move and they might think we’re dead.”
“Might not be too far off,” I said.
“You’re okay, you just got hit in the legs.”
The machine gun quit firing.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Dawson got up there, and he’s doing some damage. I’d hate to be one of those Jerries right now.” Pike jumped up and started waving. “Medic! Medic!” he called.
Corporal Montevideo arrived and flipped me onto my back, then cut my pants legs open. “You got one through the right knee, one in that hip, and one in the other thigh.” He wrapped my wounds and poured sulfa powder to slow the bleeding. Pike brought a blanket and wrapped me up in it.
“Fall back! Fall back!” came Schneider’s voice over the radio. The Germans brought more guns up to the front and the firing resumed.
“Pike, don’t leave me,” I gasped, grabbing his collar.
“Don’t worry, sir. You’re not staying here.”
“He’s got to,” Montevideo yelled. “We can’t move him if he’s gonna keep his legs”
“But we can’t –”
“Come on!” Montevideo took him by the shirt and dragged him off.
“Pike! Pike!” I called. It was no use.
I came to after blacking out when the Germans began shelling the trees above me. The limbs rained down and covered me up. I looked up just as a big one fell right on my face, breaking my glasses.
Lou walked up to me and sat on the ground. She held John in her arms, wiggling to get free of her.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I had to come see you,” she replied. “I couldn’t leave you alone out here.”
“He’s trying to walk. I haven’t let him, but he’s trying. He can’t wait much longer. When will you get back home?”
“Hon, you know I can’t tell that. Even if they told me, it could change tomorrow.”
“Just make it back, love. You’ve got to make it back.” Lou picked up John and walked away.
When I came around a second time, there was a German machine gun about ten feet away, firing at our line. It was above my head from where I lay. One stray bullet hit my nose, another hit my left arm. Something hit my chest like a strong mule kick. The mortars and machine guns were all going off, limbs still falling everywhere, and I couldn’t tell what hit me.
The Germans picked up their machine gun and began to march forward. One soldier walked up and put his gun barrel to my chest. Before he could do anything, another took hold of him and pushed him forward.
I drifted in and out of consciousness. Sometimes, I thought it was daytime. Sometimes, it seemed like night. All I remember for certain was the cold. I could feel air coming through the holes Montevideo had cut in my pants legs. I had a cold weather jacket on, but it wasn’t zipped up all the way. The gloves and socks I wore absorbed my sweat, which only made me colder. My hairless head was wrapped in a shirt, but it rested inside of a steel helmet, which absorbed the temperature. I had no idea how cold it was exactly. All I knew for sure was that it was too cold.
“Is anybody out here?” It was a man’s voice, but not in my head. I couldn’t tell if it was a dream, or even if I was still alive, but I knew the right answer. “Anybody alive?” he called again.
I whimpered, but wasn’t heard. He stood a few feet to my left. I went to move my left arm, but the pain was too much.
“Can anybody hear me?”
I took a deep breath and, pushing with my good arm, I cleared all the branches off of me.
“Is anybody alive?”
“I am,” I shouted.
The officer, a two-star general from the Third Army, turned and knelt beside me. “Medic, get over here!” he shouted as he took my hand. “What happened, Lieutenant?”
“I got hit. My men had to retreat without me.”
“And you lay here the whole time?”
“Well, I suppose.”
The general laughed. “Yeah, I suppose so, too. What’s your name, son?”
“Joseph Cecil Brewer, Jr., First Lieutenant, 2nd Platoon Leader, Company A, 26th Regiment, Fightin’ First.”
“Just hang on, Lieutenant Brewer. We’ll have you in a hospital soon.”
The chapel doors opened and six pallbearers came out carrying a casket draped with an American flag. I snapped to attention so fast it startled Lou. The breeze coming in off of San Francisco bay lifted the edges of the flag. It nearly took her hat, and mine as well. Outside of the chapel, the sign read:
1300 – FUNERAL FOR
MSG BERNARD GOLDSMITH (RET)
1530 – FUNERAL FOR
MAJOR JOHN A. STIEGLER
I looked at my watch: 1415. Lou and I walked inside and stood before the chaplain, who was occupied with his notes. One woman carried floral arrangements out and a younger woman brought more in. I wasn’t sure about whether to salute and report in to the chaplain, so I just stood waiting to be recognized.
“What can I do for you today, son?” the chaplain asked when he looked up.
“We’d like you to marry us, sir.”
“Found yourself a bride by the end of Basic Training, eh Private…?”
“Brewer, sir. No sir, we met in college. She rode the train out here alone, all the way from Texas.”
The two ladies came over to us. One handed Lou a bouquet of flowers while the other helped touch up her makeup. These women would be our two witnesses, since our families couldn’t make it.
Lou nudged me, showing me the card on the bouquet. “With warmest regards, Col. Rasmussen & Family.”
“Are we ready to begin?” the chaplain asked, hymnal in hand.
Our parents walked in the side doors and sat down on the front row.
But they didn’t belong here.
Daddy carried John in his arms. He looked to be about six years old. Our mothers each carried a little girl. John lay on the floor, looking like a six-year-old but crawling around like an infant. John pulled himself up on the pew. He kicked one leg out and Lou ran away from me to pick him up.
A five-ton truck crashed through the wall and pulled into the space between me and my family. When it breezed right in front of me, the passenger mirror hit me in the face, knocking me over. Soldiers jumped out of the back and landed on top of me on their way down. I screamed in agony. I opened my eyes. A nurse rushed over to my side.
“It’s alright, Leftenant,” she said. “Just your IV running out. Wait one moment and I’ll replace it for you.”
“Where am I?” I groaned.
“You’re in England, safe in the hospital,” she said. The pain subsided and I drifted back off to sleep.
The next time I opened my eyes, a doctor sat beside me. My vision wasn’t the sharpest, but I could see he was a large man with a thick moustache.
“Ah, master Brewer,” he said. “Glad to see you aroused. I am your attending physician, Dr. Geoffrey Cleghorn.”
“Glad to meet you, Dr. Leghorn,” I replied.
“That’s Cleghorn, you bloke. I’m no rooster. And don’t you do like these other Yanks and what’s-up-doc me either.”
“Where am I, doctor?”
“You’re in a hospital in Birmingham.”
Dr. Cleghorn laughed. “Not quite. Try Birmingham, West Midlands. You’re in England, sir.”
“How long have I been here?”
“Only about a week. We’ve kept you unconscious as long as possible.”
“Well, what’s the damage, doc?”
“You’re alive, that’s a start. You’re a bit lucky there. The cold kept your blood from flowing too fast, which kept you from bleeding to death.” He pointed to my right knee. “That leg got the worst of it. It’s too bad we didn’t get to you sooner, or else we mighta saved it.”
My heart beat a little faster.
“You cut my leg off?”
“No, no. We had to fix your knee. Won’t be able to bend it ever again, though. Straight as a board, it is.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Your left elbow was hit as well. It’s two inches shorter now, but it still works. Your right hip was hit and you lost a little bone. Left thigh – don’t worry, it’s all still in place down there – you just got a flesh wound, that’s all. Then there’s your nose, which I’m sure you’ve already noticed.”
“Actually, no I haven’t. Where’re my glasses?”
“Ah yes. Jolly lot of good they’ll do you, but here they are.” Dr. Cleghorn reached behind my head and picked up my glasses. He put them on me, and first thing I saw – and then started to remember it all – was a cracked right lens. Beyond that, my nose had a large white bandage on it. The glasses, in their deformed state, fit poorly over my nose. “No worries, just the bridge. It’ll look a bit funny, but it’ll heal alright.”
I counted in my head. Knee, thigh, elbow, nose, hip. Five bullet wounds. “Are you sure that’s all, doc? Did anything hit my chest?”
Dr. Cleghorn walked over to me and lifted my gown. He tilted his head to the side. “Nothing I can see,” he said. “Nothing but maybe a little bruising right here on your left breast. Didn’t you have branches falling on top of you?”
“Sure were. I think that’s what broke my glasses.”
“Perhaps one of the larger branches landed on you.” Dr. Cleghorn turned to leave. He tapped a nurse on the shoulder. “See to Leftenant Brewer’s bandages every three hours. That knee wound’s a nasty one. Doesn’t appear to be healing up properly.”
“Hey, doc,” I called. “Where are my things at?”
“Your personal effects have been checked in with the quartermaster. They’re doing you the favor of laundering your uniforms for you.”
“Is there any way we can get my Bible out of there?”
“We’ll have one of the orderlies see to it.” The crack in the glasses was getting too much for both my eyes and nose, so I had to take them off.
“Good news, Leftenant,” the nurse said, coming over to me. “Army’s sendin’ an optometrist thru here today to see you men who need him. That oughta do you for a new set o’ glasses.” She smiled and one of her red curls came untucked from her nurse cap.
“I have to ask, nurse, where are you from?”
“Ah, Irish, that explains it. My wife is from an Irish family, she’s a Kelley.” I felt I had to mention the wife before she smiled at me too much.
“Aye, I knew with a name like Brewer you couldn’t get too far from the Irish.”
“Any news on when I’ll be out of here, heading back home?”
“None yet, sir. Your white blood cell count’s still way too high.” I stared off at the ceiling. “You got a letter sitting by you, still unopened. It’s from the missus.” I put my cracked glasses back on.
“Mind opening it for me?”
“No problem, sir.” She handed it back to me, but it was no use. I couldn’t focus both eyes at the same time, so I couldn’t get past My dearest Cecil. I put the letter back on the bed.
“Would you like me to read it aloud for you, sir?”
“No, thank you. Nobody else reads my mail. I keep every letter between us.”
“Well, supposing I didn’t actually read it myself, just told you what words are on the page. Would that work?” She smiled a seemingly irresistible smile. How the men here let her stay single, I never figured out.
After several months, when the weather started to warm up a little, Pike came by for a visit. It was the first time I had had a visitor. He stood in the door waiting, and the nurse wouldn’t have noticed him for being so quiet.
“Pike, you gonna come in or what?” I asked.
The nurse looked up. “Well, come on in, don’t just stand there,” she said.
“How ya doing, Loot?” Pike shuffled into the room.
I reached to shake his hand. He grabbed it and didn’t seem to wanna let go. Pike just stared back at me without saying anything.
“Nurse,” I said. “You mind giving us a moment?”
“No problem, sir. You can take all the time you need. I’ll be back for you around suppertime.”
Pike sat in her chair and dropped his helmet. He put his head in his hands and said nothing.
“What’s the word from the front, Pike?”
“We’ve been pulled off the line, sir.” Pike left it at that.
“You keeping 2nd Platoon together?”
I didn’t say anything until he continued.
“They brought in more replacements. I’m caught between the guys who were there before us and the new guys. It’s…it’s just all too much, Loot.”
“Have you talked to Schneider about it?”
“I haven’t said anything, but he knows. I’m sure Dan Earl tipped him off. I don’t know how I’ll make it through the rest of the war, if we have to go back out again.”
We went back to sitting in silence.
“Congratulations, boys!” Sergeant Daniel bellowed. “The Germans surrendered today!” Captain Schneider, Sergeant Daniel, and Sergeant Turner came through the door.
“We have a special gift just for you, Lieutenant,” Turner said. He popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and poured a glass for everyone.
Schneider retrieved a box from his pocket. “For gallant bravery in the face of enemy troops in the Ardennes Forest, Belgium,” he said. “I hereby present you, Lieutenant Brewer, with the Bronze Star. And, for being wounded by enemy fire during a combat operation, I present the Order of the Purple Heart.” Schneider pinned the medals to my hospital gown. Turner stood beside us, taking pictures of us shaking hands, and then saluting.
“Congrats, Brewer,” Daniel said. “I have orders to board you on the next troop ship to the States. You’ll be sent to Memphis to spend the next year recovering. Afterwards, you’ll be discharged with a full pension.” Daniel handed everyone a glass. “To the U.S.A., boys.”
“I can’t, Sarge,” I said. I set the glass down on the table beside me. “Thanks for the offer, though.”
The other men looked around at each other. Silence was the order of the day. Daniel was the first to drink, with or without me.
“I can’t just leave here and go back to the States, either.”
“What are you talking about, Brewer?” Schneider asked. “The war’s over. We’re in occupation mode now.”
“Well, may I request that my escort home be Sergeant William Pike?”
Pike looked up and, for the first time since leaving Baltimore, started to smile.
“I think we can work that out,” the captain said. “Are you satisfied with this arrangement, Sergeant Pike?”
“Just don’t leave me, Pike,” I told him.
“Not a chance.”
A month later, we arrived in Memphis. As soon as I arrived, they set me up with my first phone call home.
The phone rang to the operator in Wisner. “Number please,” she asked.
“Cecil Brewer,” I said.
“One moment, please.” The phone rang at home and Momma answered. She heard my voice for the first time and couldn’t even speak. After a time, she called out to Daddy and Lou to pick up the phone.
“I’m safe in the hospital in Memphis,” I told them. “I’ll be home soon after that.”
“It’s so good to hear your voice,” Lou said.
I heard another voice crying. The operator, who broke in, saying, “I just cleared the board. You can have it all to yourselves.”
“Any sign of that Bible?” I asked Pike, who was unpacking my foot locker. Pike dug until he found the uniform I wore the day I got shot.
“How many times were you hit?” he asked.
“Doctor said five. Three on my legs, once in the arm, once in the face.”
Pike held up the shirt and pointed to a hole in the left breast pocket. “Don’t remember this?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Well, I remember something, but I didn’t get shot there. That’s where my Bible should’ve been. Is it in that pocket?”
Pike opened it up. “Nothing.” He kept digging, then pulled out a brown paper sack, looked inside, and laughed. Pike threw my compass into my lap. There was a round still lodged in the case. “You just can’t keep compasses, can you?”
“I guess not. That would explain the bruise and the hole in my uniform.”
Pike reached deeper into the sack and found the Bible. His countenance changed when he pulled it out. “Looks like this got hit, too.” Pike sat beside me and unzipped it, then handed me the picture of Lou.
I stared at Lou’s picture for what felt like hours. It was the first time in six months I actually saw her face – not just imagined it.
“In all things, give thanks,” Pike said. “In all things, give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”
“That’s a good scripture. Where’d you find that?”
“I dunno. Bullet ate part of the binding. The Bible just kinda fell open there.”
“Give thanks, huh?” I repeated.
“I Thessalonians 5:18.”
A knock came at the door and Pike got up to open it.
Lou came in carrying John. His little legs kicked as she stood him up on the ground. John’s feet hit the floor. His first steps ever were taken running to me.