The following is a short story I wrote a while back. The character Will is based on a story from my Grandfather, John Henry Strawn who served in the United States Army and fought in the trenches in France during World War I. My memory of this particular story is vivid because of the way he told it. His voice would fill with a mild rage and then sink to a whisper that bordered on tears. I was young and never heard him speak this way. I knew enough to keep quiet and give the man his space. A good yarn teller needs room to spin.
Chili Pete and Nicotine were his friends during this time. They could have been from anywhere, but it wasn’t important.
The visitor, wounded twice and gassed, came home, Chile and Nicotine did not. In honor of D-Day, I feel it is appropriate to share some of his stories; and if he would have lived longer, there may have been enough for a book. I was happy to know the few he did tell.
The white-haired visitor sitting to Rufus’ left had been quiet throughout Del’s story; staring at his boots and showing no emotion. So, Rufus, trying to be hospitable, asked him if he had something to say.
The way he wore his hat, all cockeyed and sweat-stained, was sad. He was in dirty clothes, worn-out boots, and no woman miserable. Chili wasn’t sure he wanted to hear about anything this old codger had to say, but he is a guest, so he gets to speak.
The visitor opened a Pearl, drank it all in one swig, gathered himself for a minute, and says, “my names William; my friends call me Will. I grew up around Kennedale and fought in the Great War back in 1917 over there in France. I ain’t never told anyone about this, but I’m getting old, and the angels are coming to visit at night, so I figure it’s about time to let this out.” Chili moved closer to the visitor.
“I joined up in the Army over in Fort Worth in1917. Then I got sent to Kansas for training and was then shipped over to France on a boat. When I got to there, my Captain, knowing I was from Texas, put me in charge of the caissons and the mules that pulled them. He figured if I was from Texas, I was a cowboy. I never told him differently. At least I was stationed back from the worst of the fighting, taking care of the stock. I was okay with that. I saved my sorry ass. I got pretty fond of those mules, and it hurt me a lot when one of them got killed. I always fed them more than needed. They were happy, critters. I liked my job; I loved being alive.
One cold miserable muddy morning these three German boys come walking across the battlefield holding a white hanky. They were giving up. Some of the boys wanted to shoot them, but our Captain said that wouldn’t be right to kill an unarmed man. Captain was funny that way. He was a preacher back in Kansas, so he tried to live by the word. Even in war.
Those kraut boys were pitiful. No coats, dirty and scared, they were a mess. We fed them some grub and gave each a blanket and a tin of hot coffee with some brandy. They were grateful. One boy sobbed a bit, and then in pretty good English, thanked us for not killing them. His name was Frank. I liked that young fella.
After a week with us, the men didn’t bother watching them anymore. Those boys helped with chores and even did KP for us. They were nice boys that didn’t want any part of this war, but like us, they were doing their duty. They were our prisoners, but we treated them like they were one of us.
I asked Frank if he wanted to help me with the stock, and he was happy to oblige. He said that back in Bavaria, his family raised farm horses for a living, so he knew horses. I was glad to have him help. I never imagined I would become friends with a German soldier, in a damned old war, but that’s what happened. Frank and I became best of buddies. I exchanged addresses and such so when the war was over, we could keep in touch.
After a while, he and the other two got moved to a town in France and turned back over to the Germans when the war was over. I didn’t know if I would ever hear from him but hoped I would. I never had many friends, except for a couple of dogs and my horse.
A year after I got home to Waco, my Momma brought me a letter from Germany.
Frank, in his best English, wrote to me about him coming home, getting the horse ranch and farm going again, and marrying his girl. A baby was coming soon. He closed his letter asking me to sail over to Bavaria and work with him on his farm. He wanted to make me a partner. I didn’t have anything going on in Texas, so I told my Momma that I was moving to Germany.
I wrote him back and said I would come to Bavaria and be his pard. We exchanged a few more letters, and he writes that a boat ticket has been purchased for me to sail from New York next April. He also said that he has a cute cousin that might be interested in meeting me. Hot dog! I was going to live in Germany and marry a little alpine princess. Whooooo-weeee.
I got my affairs in order. Sold my horse and saddle, found a home for my dogs and such, and was counting the days until I rode the train to New York City. It was never meant to be.
In early March, I received a letter from Frank’s wife, Liese. She told me Frank had died in a farm accident a month or so back. She said I could still come, and she could sure use the help running the place.
I couldn’t do it, not with Frank being dead and all. I sent her a telegram saying I wouldn’t be making the trip and I was sorry about Franks passing.
I was devastated. It changed my life, and not for the better.
I had a second chance to do something other than being a dirty cowhand, and it was jerked right out from under me. I was a real, bitter man for a long time. I drank too much whiskey and did some bad things to people. I was a horrible person at times. I didn’t know myself anymore, but I did know enough that if I didn’t change, the good Lord was not going to be calling my name on judgment day.
I sometimes did odd jobs for an old Mexican fellow named Pepe. He saw the demons on my back and talked me into coming to his church to worship with him and his family. I never was a church person, but I went just to shut him up. I never saw any of what happened until it hit me. When I walked into that little Mexican church, the demons lifted off my back. I accepted the Lord into my sorry life, and he led me to salvation. Imagine that.
I went around and apologized to everyone if I ever did any wrong. I wrote to Franks’s wife and apologized for not coming over to help her.
I enclosed a separate letter for her to put on Frank’s grave.
There it is. I’ve said it all. Feels good to get that off my chest after all these years.”
The two of us sat in silence for a while; grandfather drinking his Jax Beer and me my Coke. He rose from his chair, put his beer glass in the sink and my coke bottle in the trash can, and gave me a goodnight hug. Then I realized that the man in his story had been himself.