June 6, 1944. Portsmouth, England. D-Day.
Awaiting orders, Jones leans on his rifle and fidgets with his helmet strap. Something visceral, some adamant thing, bides time, squeezes it, moment by moment.
The sergeant struts the line, hands at his back like Patton. Although he appears as natty as yesterday and all the months before, today there’s something else about him. He spits perfectly.
“Load ‘em,” he barks. “Ammo and water just ahead. Move, move, move.”
Up along the wharf, and down along the wharf, and the next one and the next one and the next one too, men load their rifles and smear their faces with lampblack. The placid sea shimmers. Men line the docks in single files that creep like cornered snakes afraid to move.
The English coast stirs in wee-hour preparation, the hushed unrest of something classified--but urgent. Despite the hour and months of drills, tonight there’s no drudgery. The troop transport assigned for Jones looms ahead. One among thousands, it sits at anchor taking on ordnance, camouflaged in nightshade, concealed from possible planes. Fumed with diesel and the smell of grease, the night grows dense, uneasy.
From the darkness beyond, gulls cry; they flash and flare above each ship. Jones longs for home. He aches for Annie and his baby daughter, Emily, a child he may never know. He adjusts his backpack and worries too, about his dog, Tuck, who’s missing hunts and growing old with waiting. A farm boy from the heartland needs a pal, and for Jones, since he was ten, it’s been Tuck.
Jones ambles ahead in loose formation and gazes at this horde of strangers, these fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, their uniforms crossed with shell belts, drooping with grenades. Jones knows no Germans, has witnessed no slaughters, but, despite his size--which has always made him peacemaker--he will kill. He’ll shatter those blond heads given the chance, center cut. Jones can shoot.
Angst concealed in regimen, Jones boards ship. Near midnight, gathered in pairs, in groups of five or six, soldier men and boys trade banter to ease nerves and hide in machismo. Seabirds, like apparitions in the gloom, hover grayly.
“Hey, farm boy,” shouts Corporal Thompson through the dark, pointing to Jones' weapon, “that ain’t a shotgun, and the Germans ain’t your Kansas quail. So aim low. Don’t lead ‘em.” He laughs.
“Well, I’d feel better with my old 16-gauge,” says Jones as he glances at the M-1 across his lap. He steals a ragged breath, his words catching in his throat, “and I was back home kickin’ up coveys with my dog.”
“Don’t you worry, kid,” says Haller, a lieutenant with a hint of a father in his voice, his face concealed below the rim of his helmet. “Those Germans will run scared when daylight shows us coming on.” He clears his throat, stands and leans on his rifle, appearing as silhouette in shadow. “What would you do, boys, if in the lifting haze of morning, in that gray dawn, you saw from your Nazi bunker five thousand ships and two hundred thousand Allied troops? You’d run! Damn right you’d run. Hell, boys, the Germans don’t have enough bullets.”
“They say those French gals are loose and easy, but have hair under their arms,” says Private Johnson from behind the ash-glow of his cigarette.
“I don’t care if they have full beards, so long as the loose and easy parts are true,” says the lieutenant, still standing. “Look at it this way, boys, when else will we have the chance to kill Nazis and bed lonely women, wives and mothers even, in the same week, without consequence? We’ll be heroes, boys! Am I right?” Everyone nods. And everyone knows. Sure they do.
The night goes silent then, but for the slow slosh of the sea. And Jones is home again, with Annie at the fair, her candy apple in one hand, a yellow balloon in the other; and she lets it go, the balloon, and it rises in thunder, a storm looming on the skyline like a bruise. Then, they’re running in rain, laughing in rain, soaked in it, her summer dress clinging just so.
* * *
The armada eases seaward, signals flashing ship-to-ship. The English Channel flickers like a drifting city, as watercraft filled with thousands slip toward a dawning Jones hopes will never come.
Watching their troopship disappear behind them, the boys of Baker Company bounce seasick in Higgins boats, racing darkness, their puke mixed with fear and duty. Jones braces himself against the heaving of the sea, bounding up and crashing down rollers driven by wind. A perfect moon turns everything blue.
Jones’s buddy, Wendell Davis--just seventeen--coughs a sob below the drone of the engine, a single groan above the sound of the sea. He hugs himself. No one talks. Jones extends his hand, stretches it out to Wendell. The warm press of a hand, nothing more.
Ahead looms war. It flashes and flairs, goes dark, then thunders against the night. Again and again--war. And each time--its closer.
Sunrise will mark today like every other; today will fill with time as did yesterday, as will tomorrow, but as this summer Tuesday fades to dusk, a wounded world will start to heal. Scars will fade, and, as always, time will spin ahead, the sacrifice of this day buried on beaches now shrouded in mist, awaiting details, those dead-end particulars too gruesome, too grisly perhaps, to consider.
On they roll in Higgins boat 714. Thirty-six men on a dead-end run?
Curling fetal, Jones sits hunched with childhood dawns in his head. There’s Tuck asleep beside him, then nudging him awake for Mom’s breakfast of biscuits and hard-fried eggs. Those countless mornings shared afield, Jones and Tuck, growing up within the secrets of boys and dogs, a bond breaking and broken by war.
Inside his helmet is home. Outside, German guns bellow from beachhead cliffs where smoke hangs like a portent. Warships emerge within the predawn haze, surreal phantoms as if from some apocalyptic netherworld, spitting fire amid the incessant throb and pound of big guns.
Birds. There are no birds.
Jones wonders if the German bullets will go clear through, or lodge within like pellets in a killed quail. Try as he might to choke dread with the bravery of a man, tears stream his cheeks. In fear, he folds within himself, childlike.
There are real men here, the lieutenant, like Dad had been, self-confident and brave. An aching nausea consumes him, and he is thankful for the cover of the sickness from the sea.
As the boat bangs along, hitting every swell, Jones remembers the start of it. Roosevelt’s words wavering through radio static, and Mom’s concern, fear perhaps, as they listened. His mind’s eye displays his blue-sky wedding day with Annie all in white, her hair hanging so peerless down her back. He longs to touch her, and to be held.
The miracle of a daughter from their only time together without clothes, and the wonder that a child could be born of such an awkward thing as all of that.
Then Jones sees himself in uniform as he boards the train. Out the window, Tuck paces and barks. Perhaps it was the uniform, or the dog goodbye that took so long. Some things don’t happen in words.
* * *
Above the heave of the sea, legions of beeline bullets whistle and whine. The Higgins hurtles Jones toward something he cannot comprehend. In feeble light the surface erupts, water churned with missiles, whacked by bullets that ricochet and sizzle. It’s as if an ancient animus has awakened, some dormant, dreaded pestilence springing forth in maritime from the underworld of oceans.
Within that copper smell of carnage, inside that ceaseless crush of mortar and machine, the landing ramp smacks the sea. The curtain opens to a pandemonium that will leave five thousand dead.
Jones can’t hear Sarge but watches his neck cords, his mouth spewing orders. In unison, they fix bayonets, stagger like drunks, balancing guts and guns with the Higgins and the sea.
In water too deep, weapon raised, his hands curled with cold, Jones flails his boots for the bottom. All along the crests of waves are helmets, scores of them, like rotten apples bobbing, soldiers struggling to stay afloat.
A searing rips into him. The ocean turns red. Heavy with gear, Jones sinks into stillness. He rises, gasps for breath. He flounders to the beach, flops there among the dead and dying, fish and men. From all around, machine gun fire sprays sand, smacks flesh.
Jones is down. Many are down. Get Down. Down.
Men scream. Soldiers scream. Boys scream. Jones watches the screaming, and all he can hear is the din war.
Jones takes cover among the dead. Lying there, he thinks of home where perhaps this morning are beginnings, things of promise, of going forward, of hope and future. But here, today, are endings. He somehow knows this. Even for those who get through, things end...will end...do end.
All goes quiet for Jones. His ears ring, then hum...a hum and a heartbeat, and a fleeting notion of whether god, any god, could be involved in such as this. Jones turns his head and, lying on his back on Omaha Beach, stares wide-eyed to the sea, and there the fish kill of a boyhood long ago down on Hatchers Creek, the motionless carp floating belly up that his dad could not explain.
Jones stands in mild panic. He looks for some familiar face. Nearby, Corporal Thompson has come apart, his limbs lying about him like stalled toys. A helmet tumbles down the beach in slow motion, the Sarge chasing it, his eyes stuck open and crossed, a perfect hole between them like a dot.
His arms raised like a holdup victim, Jones gyrates like some mad puppet as he’s chewed by bullets that seem to scream for his mother. He collapses, rolls, and comes to rest exactly on top of Wendell Davis who hides beneath him like a kitten.
Davis lives. His story now.
* * *
I rode a fucking jeep all the way to Paris and never pulled a trigger. I caught shrapnel before Jones fell and covered me. They honored me with a damn medal. The scars became my ticket to exaggerate, and then to lie. I drowned myself in drink.
Here, at last, I speak the sober truth. Believe it.
I felt it go right out of him. His life throbbed in my ear, then dwindled to nil.
No more Jones.
Two days later, a sweltering Thursday, they flipped him, brushed the sand from his face, and yanked his tags from the maggots that crawled in the blood that dried on the gore of his neck, drawn there, I suppose, by the smell of opened bodies.
A name on a clipboard. Jones. Wives and mothers paused back home just then, stopping a moment without knowing why, anxious for husbands, worried for sons. The underfear of waiting.
One corpse among thousands, they tossed his remains on a flatbed, where, moldering among comrades and flies, Jones jounced stiffly along a bad road inland and up from the beach to burial grounds to be planted with an Italian white marble cross.
* * *
After the parades and the victory hoopla, the backslaps and welcome-homes, when the confetti had been swept from the streets and the songs we’ll never forget weren’t being played by the marching bands anymore, and thoughts of the dead and maimed had been muted by time, life went on.
No more Jones. Just a name on a mailbox. Within a few months--just time enough to forget a farm boy you hardly knew because you were kids--Annie met Tom Milford, a lawyer with connections who sat out the war.
Jones’ daughter, Emily--a name he'd picked, he told me, because of his grandmother--had a dad again. A certain Mr. Milford. The Milford family moved to California. Years passed. Kids and grandkids are older now than Jones had ever been. Jones: a name they had never heard. None of them. Erased by adoption, grafted in anonymity to the Milford line.
* * *
There’s this other way that war can be when there’s a mother’s son in the middle of it. Weeks go by without a letter. Then some government car pulls in the drive, and, moments later, the knock at the door, and the dog almost knocks you over, because, somehow, the dog knows it’s him, but it’s not--it’s just what’s left.
It takes a while for pride to find its way through such grief, to move beyond the gut wrench in that kind of sorrow. I suppose it’s hard for a mother to surrender when she’s in a war that way, with no weapons, no comrades, no rivals. Why him, Momma wanted to know, why my boy? What dignity is there, really, when it ends like this?
...and every time the rain blew against the windows after that, she told me, it sounded like the spray of bullets.
Jones’ remnants were two: the tarnished tags a mother will cherish when there aren’t any medals; and a photo of what looks to be a schoolboy in the uniform of the United States Army. I found them among flotsam at the bottom of a shoe box in the garage sale of foreclosure. They’re mine now. I wear the tags.
* * *
Should you happen toward France someday, to bask in the sparkling Riviera, then on to Paris perhaps, for the wonders of French cuisine, take a day for the burial grounds of Omaha Beach, and the bodies there--9,387 of them--forgotten Americans, their bones beneath row upon row of graves spread up along a green grass field, then down along another, and a next one, and a next one, and a next one, too. Our boys, with no way home.
I stood at the wall where my name should be, and paused a moment to skim. There it was, Private Ronnie Jones, 18, from Kansas. The Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach is a beautiful place, nestled as it is, within the wooded French countryside, all dotted with fields of yellow mustard flowers.
I stood at the overlook and looked down on the beach. Markers there for fallen heroes. Not Jones. I walked back to the rows of graves to find him, and forced myself to remember, to feel the sorrow and pride, the history of a place so special I yearned with everything in me to join him.
* * *
Without Jones, they were all they had--Momma and Tuck--and they lived alone in the house where Jones never got out of bed any more. At night, Tuck curled asleep on Jones' favorite hunting shirt, the red flannel, beside the shotgun Momma left leaning on the wall, still smelling of that gun oil he used. Until the day he died, on crisp autumn mornings, Tuck woke before dawn, and, if there had been anyone to notice, as Momma did, they’d have seen him there, sitting beautifully beside that gun, waiting for Jones.
Momma had saved for France, but died too soon, and never had the chance to press a hand and say goodbye. Momma--and that was it--and that was all.
I suppose Tuck just wandered off to who knows where, the way a dog will do when he’s old and left alone, wondering, I suppose, where they’d gone. I couldn’t find him.
No more Jones. Too bad dogs don’t take a man’s last name.
Jones: a damn fine name for a dog.
* * *
That said, and everything, at last, on the table, why not tell the rest of it? There’s another storyline here. I was near the end myself, but finally at a place of conscience where I could think again. I had my dog.
With Jones curled asleep at my feet, and with a good fire going, I reached to my neck, fingered those tags again, and began to recount the details.