Thursday, 2 August 2012

Story - Roll of Honour

On the surface Roll of Honour is not so different as many other stories about war: to try to understand the reason why they fought. It's a compelling subject for writers. Not because it's macabre, but because we need to put it into context, to contain the horror. The catharsis of writing does that. 

But I also wanted to insinuate a sub-theme: to suggest that the values we hold dear (that so many have given their lives for) constantly change, and is what inspired this story in the first place. The Canada of today is not the same country that my great-uncle died for in WW1, nor is it the same as when my father went overseas in WW2, or during the Korean conflict either. Canadians have gradually metamorphosed into people with values quite different from those who were staunch defenders of the Empire.  This story is an attempt to pay homage to those volunteers who continually put themselves in harm's way for the sake of all of those values.

Roll of Honour was a semi-finalist in the 2011 JKGLA, and won the Lest We Forget Category of the 2012 Canadian Stories Contest, appearing in Volume 15, Number 86 of Canadian Stories Magazine. In addition, it is slated to appear in this Fall's edition of Flight Plan (a newsletter for ground crew vets from WWII - which pleases me no end). 

 You'll find a recurring theme throughout: "If not us, then who?"

                                Roll of Honour

There are voices.
In a land of dreams, beyond the realm of beating hearts, they linger, waiting to be heard.
It is to this place that I am compelled to venture.

                        *                                    *                                       *

All is darkness. I cannot see, but I can feel the silence echo from far distant boundaries. Every nerve is an antenna, receiving signals on the pregnant air.
I am not alone.
To the air I say, “I am listening.”
From close by there comes a voice – a man’s - young, but so too is it old; it is transfixed with fear, but a fear so embedded that it lies nestled in the hidden regions of the mind – acknowledged, but otherwise dismissed. I soon understand that he is not speaking to me, but is reciting a memory that has become as deeply entrenched as his fear – that has become so intricately entwined with it that it is difficult to tell one from the other.
 “Machineguns everywhere! The bastards! They’re concentrating on our frontline, scything us down like so many stalks of wheat! I can see the flashes winking from their muzzles! I can hear the slugs ripping past my head. The sound is sickening as they tear into my comrades! I can hear their cries as they tumble and drown in rain-filled shell holes, already polluted with mustard gas and other comrades from previous blunders.
“I lower my head against the storm and struggle forward, but one of them has finally found me! Bullets tear into my chest like sledgehammers, and I’m screaming like the others, falling into the mud…falling into darkness.”
He finishes, and at last my vision comes into play. He appears in a pale ghostly light, his uniform is ground-in with clay; but his face is calm, the fear banished when he tells me, “I often have this dream.”
His sudden tranquility is unexpected. I feel a cold chill sweep over me when I gasp, “It must have been horrible!”
The waste offends me: all who have died in our wars – everyone on the frontline a volunteer. I need to understand what drove so many to throw away their lives with such disregard, so I ask, “But why? You didn’t have to go! What was it for?”
For a moment he seems lost in his memories, his eyes far away. Then, without raising his head, he says, “You’re asking, ‘Why did we go?’”
I am struck by his calm, although it does not infuse me. Still agitated, I reply, “Yes!”
He considers the question, the lines on his face etched in shadow.
Then he begins:
“They say that the war came about because of this or that, but the real reason was that the Hun was threatening the Empire, acting aggressive as hell, and saw that we were standing in the way.” His eyes flash. “We were, too – four-square! We couldn’t allow them to destroy what had taken centuries to build. The Kaiser had to be stopped, and it fell on us to do it!”
He becomes more reflective: his tired features wreathe into a weary smile. The sense of calm deepens.
“Well, that was the face of it, anyway.
“Me? Well, I was just a lad when I joined up, and all I’d seen of the world was a few miles outside the family homestead. Back then, I didn’t know anything about what I just mentioned. Damn few of us did. We were young, thirsting for adventure, and the Old Country needed us. What more can I tell you?”
He shakes his head, at the same time transforming the smile into a boyish grin. For reasons unknown, it wrenches my heart.
“Now I laugh when I think of that poor, deluded fool,” he says, still grinning. “If I’d known that ‘adventure’ meant slogging through mud, day after day, freezing in one water-logged trench after the other, fighting foot-rot, rats, snipers, pig-headed generals and the Hun – all in that order - I might have hesitated before signing on, but there’s no question that I would have gone anyway. It would have been unthinkable not to.”
Now the grin fades.
“Years of fighting make you tough, and we were the toughest of all. I say that without prejudice: others - including the Germans - said it too. My word! You should have seen us, all those thousands of fine young Canadians! We were the cream of the Empire, tough before we ever saw a trench, and years spent living in that hell only made us tougher still!
“They say that we forged a nation over there, that we first came to terms with ourselves in the mud of Flanders, and I suppose that it’s true.” The tone saddens, “But even the toughest of men isn’t immune to a bullet. All those thousands of fine young lads filled too many cemeteries, proving to the world that we were the best.”
He pauses, as if remembering something unshared, yet I lack the courage to inquire as to what it is. The moment passes; he shakes it from his mind, and says, “So, you want to know what I died for.’”
I have no words. My reply is a single, silent nod.
Now those shining eyes burn into my own.
“Well, I’ll tell you.
“I died because I was more afraid of letting down my comrades than I was of the enemy - because I found that it was possible to love an idea more than life itself. I was proud of who we were, of what we had accomplished, but most of all, of what we stood for: something good in the midst of a world gone mad. All else was darkness,” His certainty is implacable when he adds, “And we were the light!”
On impulse, I reach out to grasp his arm, but my hand passes through his body as if he no longer exists. Soon, he does not. His story told, he is fading, returning to shadow, with his voice still warm in my ears. After the briefest of moments, he is gone.
Others are waiting.
Soon, one begins.
“Sweet Jesus, a searchlight’s found us! Why us? Out of all the hundreds of aeroplanes over Europe on this unholy night, why is ours singled out?”
He resembles the first young man - prematurely old from facing death too many times. His uniform is different – a flight suit and leather helmet, with goggles strapped to his forehead – but the haggard look is the same. The fear is the same too: I can hear it in his voice, reaching out, seeking to control him.
“I kick the rudder and edge the wheel forward, sending the Halifax into a shallow dive, but more lights latch onto us from below. I give the column a desperate twist, a voice insanely screaming in my head, “Why us, you bastards!”
 It’s not a charitable voice. In that moment of pure panic - knowing what’s to come – that voice doesn’t care which of the others lumbering along in formation are singled out, only that it be allowed a reprieve. It’s the voice of reason gone mad - of my desire to live!
“The kite shudders as the first round of flak explodes off our port wingtip, and again as another explodes somewhere behind us! Moments later, the sky lights up when we’re bracketed from nose to tail!
“The windscreen shatters; something hot sears into my right arm, another into my neck; my headset is filled with the screams of my crew! Just for an instant, I see flames curling around the cowling of number three engine, and the entire world bursts into light!”
Once more the fear has vanished; his expression is peaceful when he looks at me and says, “I never heard the explosion.”
I think that he resembles my father, only younger - impossibly younger. I feel what he felt at that moment - not pain, but unspeakable loss. I shudder, trying to chase the sensation away, but it clings to me, pulling my soul from my body.
I manage to ask, “Why? Why did you go? What drove you to venture into all that madness?”
With a ghost of a smile, he allows, “’Madness’, that’s a good word for it, all right.”
I persist, “Then why?”
 He pauses to consider.
“Well, we were all young, of course, and the young are immortal,” he actually laughs, “or so we thought! Adventure was churning in our blood, even though we had no idea what the word actually meant.”
Gradually, his expression turns serious.
“So yeah, that was a big part of it, but not all. I won’t say that there was any burning desire to go and fight for King and Empire. Those ideas still existed, but they’d become tempered, knowing what the last war had cost, and how it needed to be done over again. That can take the luster out of even the finest idea.
“What did exist in our minds, though, was that Hitler needed to be stopped, and it was us who would have to do it.”
He becomes more philosophical, subtly turning the subject onto a different plain.
“Fate can be precocious that way: one generation is allowed to live in peace, never really knowing or understanding what it means to have to fight for what it believes. Then the wind shifts just a little - a madman comes to power - and the next generation is led to the slaughter, with the knowledge forced on them that it’s not possible to turn away.”
He levels his gaze on me; at the same moment his features begin to dim. “That’s what happened. That’s why we went.” There is a terrible firmness to his voice even as he fades. “The darkness was coming, and there was no one else to hold it back!”
Then he, too, is gone.
There is a moment, but too brief to reflect on a matter so profound. Reflection must wait; there is an impatience to fill the void.
A new voice begins.
“Christ, there’s thousands of them!”
“Who?” I ask, “Thousands of who?”
“Chinese!”  He replies, tense with that ever-present fear. “Somebody’s sent up a star shell, and the night’s all in shadows! My eyes are playing tricks on me! The entire face of the hill is shape-changing, transforming and re-transforming, as if it’s made of liquid instead of solid earth! But it isn’t that at all. It’s the commies coming at us again – like I said, thousands of the bastards - and this time they mean business!
Breathless, he continues.
 “Terror stings me into action, and I’m hauling back on the bolt of my rifle. Then it’s bucking against my shoulder, again and again, but there’s so many of them – so goddamned many!
“I see the tracer a moment too late, stitching up the ground toward me, zeroing in on my muzzle flashes! I try to duck behind the sandbags, but something slams into my shoulder, spinning me against the back of the foxhole! Then I hear a thud on the ground beside me, and see the grenade!”
I sense a shudder - a memory too often revisited.
“I close my eyes before it explodes.”
He says it with relief, as if it is a victory.
I stare into his face; it is young and handsome like the others. Again, I am captured by the moment. It is impossible to phrase my question, but he seems to understand.
“It’s a hell of a thing, dying,” he says, in a voice so soft that I have to lean forward to hear, “but the fear of dying’s a helluva lot worse. When you see it coming, part of you leaves, a part you never get back, even if by some miracle you survive.” His smile is accepting when he tells me, “Well, I didn’t survive: miracles weren’t in the cards for me that night.”
I am finally able to gather enough of myself to ask, “What was worth so much for you to go – to risk your life, and…” I force myself to continue, “…and to lose it? What could possibly be worth such a sacrifice?”
His laughter is disconcerting when he replies, “It’s like this: I was too young to get into the big war, but I wanted to do my part. I mean, back then it was pretty glamorous, seeing all those older guys returning from overseas. The way the dames flocked all over them was the bee’s knees to a kid of fifteen! So I suppose that when the call came for Korea, it was as much the memory of all those men, just off the train, struggling through the crowd with their mouths and cheeks already smeared over with lipstick, that decided it for me as anything.” He chuckles, “I wanted to get some of that, too!”
Then, seriously:
“ Of course the Reds were a threat. They had to be stopped. Who else was going to do that if not us?”
His brow wrinkles pensively, although the smile never leaves, even as he begins to lose substance.
“There’s a thousand ways to die, but few have a reason. We wanted a better world, something that was a beacon in the darkness. An idea like that’s worth a lot.”
He dissipates like the others, but there is still no time to reflect. My heart continues to sink, for I know there is one more story, from one last generation, remaining to be told.
It comes riven with adrenaline and something else: perhaps it is panic. Of course it is, I know it is – how could it be otherwise?
“My legs! Where the hell are my legs? Oh god, they’re gone! But why?
“So tired, I need to think, get my head on straight, but I’m so tired!
“Fight it off soldier, you’re going into shock, stay alert!
“Oh good, here’s Sammy – Sam-the-Man - a geek with the ladies, but still the best medic in the company!
“Hey Sammy! Help me figure this out, okay? Like, I seem to have misplaced my legs, ain’t that a scream? Oh god! I really do feel like screaming!
“What the….? He’s acting like he can’t hear me! Never mind, let him do his thing. Go to it, Sammy, get it done, man!
“So tired…
“Wonder what happened? Everything was fine, then there’s this loud bang, and I’m tossed out of the LAV, somehow, and sprawled here by the side of the road.
“Tired…really, really tired…
“Ow! What was that, Sammy? Morphine? Good deal, man, things were starting to get a little too real there for a while. Hey! Take it easy, can’t you? No need to rip my shirt open like that, it’s got buttons, you know?
“Stop…hitting…my…chest! Wanna…break…a…freakin’…rib?
“Oh lord! He’s giving me CPR! That must mean…!
“Oh no! No! NO! NO! NO!
“My legs! Where the hell are my legs!
“So tired…sleep…just for a moment…”
 Then, like the others, the recitation ends, and he speaks directly to me.
“I’ve been sleeping ever since.”
 He could have been my son – so beautiful, so full of youth. I cringe away from this thought, and he states, “You want to know what I died for.”
I reply, “Yes,” even though there is a great lump in my throat. My eyes brim with tears. “I need to know.”
Soberly, he nods. There is something terrible in the gesture; it is far too mature in someone so young.
 “It’s not like I planned on it or anything, but that’s how it goes sometimes, when you feel that your life has to stand for something. My buddies and me, we counted the cost, and went anyway.”
His tone changes as he reflects further.
“We had to go, there was no one else. There were bullies that needed to be stood up to,” his grin makes him look ridiculously young, “and we’re real good at standing up to bullies!”
I wait, knowing what is to come. He is fading even as I hear it.
“Someone had to step up and shine.”
When he is gone, I am alone, filled with a sense of loss. The silence stretches on as I struggle with all that I have been told. Soon the waking world will find me, and everything will disperse. This cannot happen. Not yet.
Each of these men had confessed to the folly of youth, yet each had alluded to a higher calling when faced with the peril of his time. But their time really has no time; the beginning is lost in the shadows of yesterday, and the end disappears into the mists of an uncertain tomorrow. So many sacrificed to preserve who we are - to preserve what constantly changes.
I knew none by name, but all are set in bronze, in every church, in every town hall or cenotaph across this land – names of those who have paid the price so that what we believe can continue to have meaning. They once walked among us; now most lie in forgotten graves, far from their homeland.
Does this help me to understand? Can anything? The appalling waste still offends me, as it should offend anyone. What if they had survived? What measure of genius has been taken from us because they went too soon? Yet, to counter, it must be said that when the need had been greatest, they did not rest, and for that there can only be gratitude.
And still they do not rest. Perhaps they never will.
Their spirits are a flame, casting illumination on a path far different from the one they were faced with when they lived. They once walked among us; they are among us still – reciting their stories, over and over, on the chance that, one day, the world will finally listen.
Can you see them?  
They shine with a light all their own.

  The End

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