Jack Leaves Home
"Don't cry, Marie," Jack said and hugged her.
Marie pulled away and lifted her apron to wipe her eyes. "How can you go? You've only been home a day."
"Where are you going?" His brother, Edwin, asked as he entered and held out his hat.
Marie bobbed her head and accepted it. She helped him remove his coat as she said, "Master Jack is joining up. Tell him that's ridiculous."
"I will speak with my brother. Inform Agnes I won't be here for dinner."
"I'll be fine, Marie," Jack said and gave her another quick hug.
She sniffled and hugged him hard.
He closed his eyes and rested his cheek against her greying hair.
Edwin made an annoyed sound and tapped his foot.
"Don't let him bully you," Jack whispered.
"Don't you be worrying about me." Marie pulled away and used her apron to wipe her face again. "The mister won't you let go. I'll see that your room is properly aired and you'll stay home as you should. Going away to school is bad enough, but this…" She made a tsking noise and patted his cheek before scurrying away.
Jack gazed after her, smiling fondly, glad his father had her company although it likely hurt him as it did Jack to see the resemblance to his mother. He pushed his memories away and turned to face his brother.
"Don't waste your breath. I'm going."
"I suppose it's for the best, although you'll devastate the old man. Have you spoken with Phips? In eight months you'll be twenty-one and need to put someone else in charge of Sylvan if you won't be here to take over."
"I was hoping you'd do it? Dad can hand it over to you instead of me until I get back."
Edwin frowned and straightened his cuffs. "The running of the company is no small job."
Jack glanced at his brother's shaking hands and sighed hard. His brother's bland expression gave nothing away but it was obvious Jack's news upset him too despite the fact that it had been Edwin's idea in the first place. He was the one who'd spoken of a young man's duty to country when he'd last come home. And Jack had agreed it was cowardly to hide behind wealth as the children of Edwin's friends did to avoid service. He laid a hand on his brother's arm. "I'll be fine. You can run Sylvan as you see fit until I return. I'll go speak with Phips and Groger today. My allowance is enough. You can keep the profits while you're running it."
His brother made a face and stepped away.
Jack rolled his eyes and released his brother's arm. His brother hated talk of money and displays of affection. He thought them both crass.
"Don't be such a fuddy-duddy," he called over his shoulder as he headed to the door. "And take care of Marie and the old man.
Jack stood on the parquet floor, trying not to feel like he was five-years old and being called in for a scolding. Warm sunlight streamed through the open French doors behind his father's double-wide mahogany desk.
Built for two, Jack could almost see his mother's ghost in her usual spot across from his father. Soft spring breezes wafted a hint of roses to him. Roses she had planted and cared for herself. Everything about this house held memories of his mother. She'd designed every detail with loving attention.
He tore his eyes from her empty seat and glared at his father. Not because he was angry, but because he didn't want his father to notice the sad glance at his mother's empty seat and be reminded of his loss.
"Dad, I'm going."
"You can't go! I need you here. Calm down and we can talk about this."
Immaculate in his pinstripe suit, his father's once brown hair had turned snow white since the accident that had killed Jack's mother and sister four years ago. The lines in his face deepened as he gazed at his son.
Jack ran his hand through his short, brown hair and scowled. His father licked his lips and traced his fingertips over the open folder before him. The nervous gesture made Jack feel bad. His father loved him and was worried.
"Look, Dad," he said in a softer voice. "I'll be drafted in a few years anyway."
"Son, you're only twenty." His father drew in a deep breath, obviously searching for patience. "Sylvan is vital to the war effort. You won't be drafted if you're managing it. Why join now? America has no part in the war…"
"Buttons," Jack scoffed and rolled his eyes. "I'm not making buttons. We both know it's just a matter of time before America joins the fight. I'm joining now and when we do go overseas, I can make a real difference."
"Buttons are crucial. Not glamorous, but important. I'm getting on in years and need you—"
Jack cut him off. "You have Edwin. He'll be more than happy to run Sylvan too."
"Sylvan is yours. Your mother worked hard to get that company going."
The hurt in his father's voice made him wince. But if his father had his way, he'd be wrapped in cotton and kept on a shrine to his mother's memory.
"I love Mom and Janice, but it isn't fair to expect me to give up my life for them."
"I'm trying to save your fool life," his father snapped. He half rose and leaned over the desk, bracing himself on his hands. "War isn't glorious or an adventure. It's dangerous."
"I know that."
The two men glared at each other a moment.
His father straightened and held out his empty hands. "Son, please, just finish college first, and we'll talk about this again when you graduate."
"I already told them I won't be back until this war is over. Dad, I'm sorry, but I'm going and not for an adventure."
A twinge of guilt roughened Jack's voice. He did think it would be exciting to see Europe and be involved in the fight for freedom.
"I really believe we need to help our allies now before it's too late."
"You're all I have left," his father said in a broken voice and rose his hands to cover his face.
Jack stood stricken, not knowing what to say. His mother's and sister's death had devastated his father, leaving him a shell of the man he used to be. He never laughed or smiled now. The once welcoming house seemed cold and lonely, and Jack hated it. He'd been happy to go to off to school, and maybe been a bit wild, but he missed the parties and crowds of his youth. He missed his father's booming laugh and his sister's giggle. Most of all, he missed his mother's quiet smile and the soft look in her eye when she gazed at them.
"Dad, they're arresting and separating families. Innocent people. If we do nothing and they succeed in pushing past their borders, they'll try here next. You now they will. We need to stop them."
"I'm not arguing the Nazi's need to be stopped, but you can help more here, at home."
Jack threw his hands in the air and spun away. "The enemy is there, not here! I'm not making buttons," he called over his shoulder as he slammed from the room.
Brook Leaves For Europe
Brook's father, Doctor Eugene Taylor, was a man used to getting his own way, and Brook knew this would be a difficult talk.
"You'll stay here, and that's the end of it. You'll get your degree and work right here in England. How can you even think of joining?"
Brook glanced at her mother, Lillian, for support, but she stood at Eugene's elbow and scowled, nodding agreement with everything he said.
Her father's secretary, Marilynn, poked her head into the office and gave Brook a small, encouraging smile, but said nothing.
Brook had been coming to this office and working with her father since she could walk. He'd taught her everything she knew and had encouraged her to get her nursing degree and now her doctorate. Marilynn was a good friend and understood Brook's need to help. She closed the door, leaving them alone. The muted sounds of her father's crowded waiting room faded with the closing doors.
"Dad, they need surgical nurses, and they need them overseas, not here. I'm young but well trained. Let me join the nursing core, and I can make a real difference."
"Absolutely not," Lillian snapped and released Eugene's arm.
She shook her head so hard her still vibrant dark hair swung loose from the knot on her neck. She absently tucked it back into a neat bun as she spoke.
"Your father is right. That's no place for a young woman. Why anything could happen to you. We forbid it, Brook."
Her mother took a deep breath and clasped Eugene's hand in both of hers. "We agree the need is dire, but you can help right here at home. We've discussed this and will give our permission for you to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment."
Eugene disengaged his hands from his wife's grasp and absently patted them. "Not Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service. You will be a VAD, not a QAIMNS," her father said as he stepped forward and hugged her quickly. "I love your kind heart, and I realize the nurses are dangerously understaffed, but I can't let you go, Brook. It's much too dangerous. Join the VADs and work from home. You can finish your medical degree and work with me right here in London. We need surgical nurses too, and when you're a fully qualified doctor, we'll hang your shingle beside mine. Your mother and I love you and want you safe."
Brook hugged her father hard a moment before hugging her mother. She'd known they would forbid her joining, but she was legally an adult. Guilt formed a lump in her throat.
"I waited to finish this year of school, but I can't wait any longer. I'm going to join up today." She held up her hand as her father opened his mouth. "As a VAD, but I'll go where they send me. Gloria tells me the training is quick because the need is so urgent. I won't be able to complete my degree right now."
Tears filled her mother's eyes, making the lump in Brook's throat grow.
"I'll be careful, Mom, but they need me."
Her mother pressed her lips together and shook her head. "Keep money on you and stay in camp with the other nurses. As proud as I am of our young men, they can act wild—"
"She'll be fine," her father said and disengaged one hand from her mother's clutch to pat the hands clenched on his. "Brook has a good head on her shoulders. She won't put herself in compromising situations."
Brook grinned ruefully.
Her father narrowed his eyes and placed his hands on his hips. "I expect you to remember you're a lady and behave in all ways appropriately. War isn't an excuse to act immorally."
Brook hugged them both again. Guilt deepened her voice when she spoke. "I'll make you proud."
She hurried from the room before they could see her tears. Her father thought the VADs remained in England, but she knew they served on the front lines. Her best friend, Gloria, wrote her weekly, and the stories she told chilled Brook. England's young men needed help. Help she could give. Her father would be angry when she left, but he'd forgive her.
On the street, she glanced back at the hospital. Since war had been declared last September, the hospital bustled with activity. A hushed air overlay the entire city. Laughter held a hysterical edge and tears seemed to linger in everyone's eyes.
England was worried and hunkering down for a fight. Sandbags lined the streets and shades covered the windows. Airplanes overhead set off sirens and panicked running to the nearest shelter. Her father was wrong thinking she'd be safe here. Nowhere was safe from the German Reich. The Nazi's had declared war on the world.
Jack at War
NOVEMBER 1944 Four Years Later
Jack let his rucksack fall to the snow and removed his helmet to tighten his scarf. The khaki wool around his ears made hearing difficult, but all he could hear anyway was Frank and Henry bickering. Most of the men in his platoon plodded down the narrow dirt lane without speaking.
He snatched up his rucksack and shrugged it on, awkward in his thick gloves.
"Hey, buddy, you dropped your bedroll." The new guy, John, handed him the tightly tied blanket wrapped in ripped canvas as Jack nodded his thanks.
"Requisition a new pack. Yours is holier than Jesus."
"That's his lucky pack," Frank said and slapped Jack's shoulder. "He'd have been dead ten times over without it. There's a story for every damned bullet hole. Hey, remember back in Paris, when that guy tried to pop you while you were sleeping?" Frank said as he fished a cigarette from a mangled pack in his top pocket and lit up. He inhaled deeply, the smoke mingling with the frosty air they exhaled.
"Bloke thought Jack's pack was his head and released a full clip into it. Shot the hell outa his helmet." Frank snickered and nudged Jack with his elbow. "Tell John about that time in Amiens when you stopped to take a piss—"
Jack let the words wash over him. Frank would keep telling stories until they stopped for the night or the lieutenant made him shut up.
The memories Frank thought were so funny Jack found terrifying. He clearly remembered the sound the machine gun had made as it shredded his bedroll. Those bullets had been meant for him, and it was just dumb luck he'd gotten up minutes before, leaving his helmet atop his pack.
His pack was lucky, he thought and hitched it higher on his back. He'd been shot twice, both bullets slowed by his pack and ending up mere flesh wounds that didn't even require a visit to the doctor. Their medic had patched him up, and he was able to stay with his squad.
And he liked these guys. Too much maybe. It was easier not to know them, not to care. He was sick of this war and this place. He was sick of mud and snow and being cold, hungry, and dirty. Warm rooms and clean beds seemed like a dream. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten hot food or taken a shower. June and his discharge seemed like a million years away.
His life had become a series of long walks interspersed with violence and the death of friends. At another time, he'd have enjoyed these Belgian forests and quaint towns, but there was no enjoyment left in his life. He really wished Frank would shut the hell up.
Frank's laughter and John's questions made it hard to remain in the mindless state where you didn't notice the pain in your feet and shoulders or the ache in your legs from walking all day.
"Button it down," Walt called over his shoulder. "Intel has this next section of road defended."
"Yes, sir, Lieutenant," Frank said and stuffed the red rag he used to clean the Thompson machine gun he carried into his pocket.
Jack eyed the gun enviously but didn't envy Frank having to lug that beast around. Only four men in the platoon carried machine guns. Frank kept his gun in pristine condition. He caressed the gun lovingly and spent as much time cleaning it as he did talking.
Jack unlimbered his Springfield rifle and stripped off his gloves. All around him his platoon did the same. The talk died down, and they tried to step quietly. In Jack's experience, intel was usually a day or two behind. Walt knew that too though and would compensate. He'd warn them before they walked into the shit.
Walt had a knack for sensing when it was about to hit the fan. The entire platoon kept one eye on him and dropped as one when he lifted his fisted hand ten minutes later.
"Hawkins, take Trenton and James and ease through the trees there and see what we got," Walt whispered. "Pryor, Michelson, and Adams, you three, go left."
Walt was still sending his men into position when Jack led his small squad forward into the left-hand trees. Heavy vehicles chugged along somewhere in front of them, Men spoke but were too far away for Jack to make out the language.
Jack crouched and darted from tree-to-tree, his eyes scanning for movement, or dislodged greenery and dirt. They rarely ran into traps, but it had happened. He bit back a laugh. His pack had saved him from a trap too. He'd thrown it to a base of a tree where he'd intended to bed down, and it had blown fifty feet. It had survived with only a small scorch mark and a stain from the can of beans that had exploded to show for it.
His shoulders relaxed, and he straightened as they drew closer. The men before them spoke English. Just to be safe, he remained low until he laid eyes on them, but he knew they were his guys.
"Michelson, head back and tell Walt. I'll see if I can find an officer," Jack said.
Michelson gave him a two-finger salute and he and Adams ran back to their platoon.
"American," Jack called as he exited the woods holding his gun over his head. "The Twenty-eighth, Platoon L, here. Anyone got word from Dutch?"
Men walking beside and riding in the trucks paused to stare. Some nodded greetings, but most went about their business as if he wasn't there.
A tall, thin man, marching with a group of his fellows, gave him a friendly smile and spit a wad of tobacco juice into the muck covering the road. "Sure, Mack, the birds back in the nest but our lieutenant has the latest." He cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed, "Peters, Walter's group is coming in!"
A brawny man who'd been sitting on the open tailgate of a fully loaded truck jumped down, ran over, and offered his hand. Jack shook his hand and eyed his worn uniform. Stains marred the elbows and knees like his. But unlike his, this man's pack bulged with supplies. Jack eyed it enviously. He was down to his last can of beans and had eaten half-raw rabbit two nights in a row now.
"Good news for you," Peters said in a thick Jersey accent. "I got orders to send you in for resupply, and this road is clear all the way back. You'll be eatin' hot tonight, boy." Peters slapped his shoulder and nodded to the trucks. "We're headed to Bastogne to dig in. Got orders to support the port there in Antwerp. There's a big push coming. We'll have these shitheads cleared up in no time."
Jack nodded noncommittally. He'd heard that too many times to count. The big push sounded dire though. Usually, the officers called for, 'little skirmishes, or, a small dust-up,' and that meant Jack and his buddies would be deep in the shit for days.
Walt joined them, and Jack wandered off while the two officers talked. His platoon gathered round, most, like Jack, taking out their last can of beans and squatting on the side of the road to eat it.
He'd have liked to sit, but the light snow had been churned to mud and having a cold, wet ass wasn't on his list of things to do. He used his finger to scrape the side of the can clean, then crushed and stowed the empty can in his pack before standing to take a quick head count.
"All thirty accounted for, sir," he said when Walt joined him.
"Let's double time this, boys. Word is we're getting resupplied and might even get Christmas off. I don't know about you, but a shower and bed are all I want for Christmas."
The men laughed and joked, full of good cheer at the prospect of a few days rest and real food. Jack smiled too but what he wanted was home. He wanted to see women and children smiling instead of starving and begging for food. He wanted to sleep an entire night without worrying someone was going to shoot at him.
Walt slapped him on the shoulder. "Let's go. Pryor, lead us out."
"Yes, sir," Jack said with forced enthusiasm and put some extra oomph in his step.
The men fell in and followed with a firm stride. Jack peered over his shoulder and smiled. By damn, he was proud to serve with these boys. They marched on the edge of the road, wearing their ragged clothes and carrying empty packs with their heads high and their steps firm.
Walt called out a cadence, and soon all the men were yelling their marching song. Pride straightened Jack's spine as the men in the trucks saluted Walt. When the last truck had disappeared in the distance, Walt let the song fade, but the glow of pride remained until they reached the outskirts of Wiltz.
This must have been a nice place once, Jack thought sadly as they strode up the muddy dirt road. Tents now filled the fields on both sides of the street, and crude fortifications had been built across the once-green fields. Barbed wire surrounded the machine guns and cannons that now lined the street and sandbags edged trenches, empty now but waiting like graves. Jack turned his gaze away.
Someone on the trucks had called in their imminent arrival because tents and hot food waited for them.
"Pryor, see about replacing our radio and hand in our requisitions, then you're off duty with the rest of the men on a three-day pass."
Jack saluted and jogged away. Three days of sleep and hot food. It sounded like heaven.
A blaring siren worked its way into Jack's dream. The dancehall on second street back in Pennsylvania morphed into the Parisian whore house where he'd spent his last leave over eight months ago. The girl in his arms spun out of his embrace on the music. He knew her name was Josie, she was the last girl he'd danced with back home, but her face remained a shadow. A sharp rattle of gunfire mixed with the music, and Josie began unbuttoning her shirt, but he couldn't concentrate, the siren wouldn't be ignored.
When he opened his eyes, a clanging bell had been added to the air-raid siren. All around him men grumbled and stamped their feet into boots. The dream refused to fade. He'd been serious about Josie and crushed when he received the letter breaking it off, and now he couldn't picture her face.
"Shoulda fucking knowed," Frank complained as he stood and stretched. "One fucking day."
"Better than none," John said.
Jack had to bite back his laugh when Henry punched him.
"Hey," John said all indignant.
"Knock it off," Jack pulled Frank away before he could hit John too although he wanted to punch him also.
"Fucking new guys," Frank muttered.
Jack slapped Frank's shoulder and grabbed his gun right as Walt ran in.
"Leave the weapons but shake a leg. Grab your macks; it's raining out there. Our field hospital was hit, and they're rushing them here.
"Pryor, take five men and get down the west road. Assist in the triage. The rest of you are with me. The trucks have jammed up in the mud and we're going to hump those poor sods to the hospital."
The men quit grumbling and ran after Walt. Jack didn't have to ask for volunteers or assign anyone. His usual crew ran out the door behind him. Cold rain trickled over the brim of his rain gear and across his face. Wind grabbed the oiled canvas and whipped it, letting the rain soak the front of his trousers.
All around them, men yelled questions and instructions their voices loud to be heard over the screams and moans of the injured and the wind tossed rain.
"Looks like they let an idiot drive," Frank said in harsh disapproval.
Jack had to agree. Some idiot had managed to slide sideways and tip himself over, blocking the entire road. Injured men sat on the ground, most sporting new bleeding wounds and older bandaged limbs. Another truck had rammed the first and a third had tried to avoid the two and ended up on its nose in a foxhole on the left. Men had been flung from the back of that truck and landed in the barbed wire surrounding the fox hole. Most of the screaming came from them.
"There'll be a kit in the truck," Jack said and headed to the closest cab, slipping on his gloves as he ran.
"Stop moving," a man yelled in a voice tight with pain. "They'll cut us out just stop struggling, you're making it worse."
Previously injured men, wearing patient gowns, not the thick, wool uniform that offered Jack some protection as he reached into the wire and began cutting, were tangled in the heavy wire. Other soldiers had arrived and begun cutting them loose. Curses and cut off screams rent the night air.
"I got him," a man said at his shoulder as Jack fumbled one handed with the cutters, trying to support the man's legs as he freed them so they wouldn't tangle in the uncut strands beneath him.
He glanced at the older man beside him, nodded, and continued to cut, ignoring the barbs that cut into his hands and arms as best he could. The two of them lifted the man out and went back for another. When he laid the second one down, a woman leaned over the first man. Soaked brown hair straggled over her cheek and she clutched her dark-blue coat closed with one hand.
"How bad," the older man asked.
Jack turned to peer through the dark, but it appeared as if all the men trapped in the wire had been freed. He turned back in time to see the nurse hand the man a shred of white cloth.
"Tie it on his right hand." She stood and cupped her hands around her mouth. "Take the ones with the white cloth on their wrists first." She squatted again and brushed at the blood dripping down her cheek with one hand as she spoke. "You're going to be fine, soldier." She glanced at the older man and nodded reassuringly but spoke to the man on the ground. "The scratches are mostly shallow, and I don't think you'll lose your sight. No, don't try to open your eyes." She yanked off the white, veil-like hat on her head and ripped it apart. With gentle hands, she wrapped the man's eyes.
"My mates." The man struggled to rise, and the nurse pressed him back down.
"Do what the nurse says, soldier," the older man said, and with a slight shock, Jack realized he stood beside Dutch himself.
"We'll take care of them." The general patted the injured man's shoulder and rose. "They're all out. You did good."
"You need to stay still or you're going to ruin all my hard work," the nurse added.
"Birdie?" The man on the ground said the name hopefully.
"Yes. You can trust me. I swear you won't be blind, and you'll hardly be scared at all. I'm more worried about the stiches you broke. You just lay still until they come for you."
Her patient moaned, and her lips tightened. She smoothed his hair and gathered her skirt to rise.
"You'll see me tomorrow," she said in parting and ran to the next man.
Jack waved his arm to gather his squad. Everyone saluted the general before running after the nurse.
"Jesus," John said and crossed himself as they came up on the wreck laying sideways across the road.
Dead men strapped into stretchers littered the ground. Wounded men lay in the mud, the lucky ones covered by ponchos or bedrolls. Blood darkened the puddles. Something had exploded, taking parts of men with it. Luckily mud and rain mostly obscured the chunks spread across the ground.
Jack averted his eyes from the grisly sight and bent to help an injured man adjust the thin piece of tarp over an unconscious man on the ground. At least Jack hoped he was unconscious and not dead already.
"This one, sergeant."
Jack turned to the light soprano voice and bile rose in his throat. A woman shouldn't be in the midst of this horror. Two men shouldered past him and picked up the man she'd indicated as she crawled through the mud to the next man.
"Can someone give me a hand here?"
Jack crouched beside her.
The girl spoke without looking at him, her hands busy in the chest cavity of the man before them. "Hold the belt on his leg tight. Release it every three minutes for ten seconds. Make sure whoever moves him keeps the pressure on. "
Jack gripped the tourniquet she'd placed on the man's leg. " Frank, take my poncho and rig something over this guy. What do you need, ma'am?"
"A towel or shirt or something. Here, can you hold this?" She glanced at him quickly as she handed him a bloody suture kit. Blood still trickled from a cut on her scalp and her eye was beginning to blacken. Something had scrapped her cheek, leaving a rough, red patch, but she had the prettiest blue eyes he'd ever seen.
"Fuck," she snapped, and he snorted with laughter surprised by the foul word from her. With her English accent, she sounded refined and delicate, but she continued to mutter swears as blood spurted between her fingers.
Frank handed the nurse his mack. She took it absently and folded it into a crude pad, pulled out a piece of metal from the man's chest, and pressed the material to the wound. He and John stood over them, stretching out John's poncho to block the rain from the woman's bowed head. She worked quickly, her fingers deep in the man's chest again.
"What have we got here, nurse?" a man asked. He leaned over Jack, his once white coat was now stained and soaked. Rain had flattened his hair and trickled in rivulets into his soaked clothing.
"Metal post from the truck nicked the artery, doc. He's got another bleeder in the leg. I got this one stitched, but it's rough."
"Can you clamp the leg?"
"I think so." The man by the wheel there has a crushed pelvis and his buddy isn't going to make it. He might be dead already. There's a four-inch-deep gash along the back of his skull and his arm was torn off. I used a tourniquet but…"
"Save the ones we can."
"Yes, sir," she said in a tight, trembling voice.
"You're doing fine."
The nurse bit her lip and nodded.
Jack felt a pang of sorrow. This girl didn't belong here in the mud and filth. She should be in a drawing room sipping tea. Not here surrounded by violence, cold and scared and heartsick.