IT WAS THE SUMMER WHEN WE FIRST MET EACH OTHER.
I know this because we were swimming in the quarry behind the ravine, a tradition we only did when the weather was nice and when I was with my friends, Billy and Thomas. One day, while we were swimming, Billy and Tom decided to bring three friends with them, Amanda Peterson and Clara Wallace and a third girl I did not know. The first two were nice girls, kind and sweet, but they weren’t the kind of girls I was attracted to. They spoke too much and offered too little, but when I listened to what the other girl had to say, I had this feeling that she would be different, and I would like her more than the others, that I could fall in love with her.
I looked into her piercing brown eyes and felt locked a trance. It was like I was being lured in and as if all time had stopped and I was now a mere observer standing beyond the scope of reality, watching from afar. I was trapped with this captivating girl and all I wanted to do was say something- anything -that would tell me more about her. I wanted to know everything.
“Hello,” I said. “My name’s John. What’s yours?”
I started to off with something simple.
“Rebecca,” she said. “Rebecca Carlson.”
I could sense that she was timid but not nearly timid enough to make me turn away.
“Have you ever been here before?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “this is my first time.”
“Really?” I said. “Well…we have to make sure it’s memorable now, don’t we?”
She nodded and I leapt out of the water, grabbed her arm, and pulled her in.
She laughed and splashed me and we swam around and enjoyed the calmness of the quarry. I could feel the attraction more than I could feel the temperature of the water and the more time I spent with her the happier I was.
“When can I see you again?” I asked her right before she left.
And with a sultry blink of the eye she gave me the answer I was hoping for.
“Soon,” she said. “Very soon.”
I smiled and from there we began our courtship. Sometimes we would share a cup of coffee and other times we would see a movie at the local cinema, and sometimes we would take a stroll along the sidewalk and look up at the stars and talk about the lives we wanted to live. She told me that her dream was to become a teacher and I told her that I didn’t know what mine was, but what we both agreed that what we really wanted was a life where we were happy and healthy, a life where we were both loved.
We gazed up at the stars and I leaned forward to kiss her lips. It was a simple act of affection but one I knew would make the moment, just like the moments that we experienced before and the moments we hoped would continue afterwards.
The next day, however, I received a conscription notice in the mail. It said that our country was going to war and that I was required to serve, as were my friends and as was my family. When I told Rebecca about the notice, she reached forward and gently touched my cheek.
“I don’t want you to go,” she said. “Please don’t go.”
“I don’t want to,” I said. “But I have to. We all have to.”
She fell into my arms and I tried to forget about where I would be when woke and whether I would ever come back.
“Rebecca,” I whispered into her ear, “no matter what happens I want you to know that I’m going to find a way to come back to you, do you understand? I promise we will be together again.”
She sat up and looked at me with saddened eyes.
“John, you don’t even know where you’re going or what’s going to happen to you once you get there, so please…please don’t make me promises you can’t keep.”
I stared at her with unbridled sadness.
I couldn’t mask my emotions any more than she could, but at least I knew what I was going to say.
“I promise,” I said. “I promise.”
She kissed my cheek and removed something from her pocket.
“Here,” she said. “Take this with you.”
I grasped the page and unfolded it, slowly. It was a picture of us and was taken at a carnival, during our fourth date. As I recall the vendor took it after I had won a stuffed animal in this “toss-across” game. It was the most recent picture we had of each other and was also our best one.
“This?” I said. “But this a photo of the two us. You don’t want me to take this.”
“Yes, I do,” she said. “It will help you, and over there, you’re going to need as much help as you can get, even though I won’t be there with you you’ll still have me close by. I’ll be with you…always.”
I held in front of my face and examined it carefully.
“The look on your face in this picture. You look so happy. It looks like you’re saying something. What is it?”
Rebecca smirked and gently touched my hand.
“I’m telling you not to forget, to remember what’s waiting for you here, and the man you are, the man I love.”
I gazed at the photograph and immediately returned to the time when it was taken. I was no longer lying on a field about to leave for war, and I was there, right there at the carnival with Rebecca, smiling and laughing and standing in a place where only peace existed, only love.
“Okay,” I said. “I will.”
I kissed Rebecca again, held her tightly, and tried with all my strength to stay with her but time can only stretch for as long and before I knew it I would be gone.
Seven days later I boarded a train and headed for a military base where I was set to begin my training as a soldier. Until then, however, I had only considered how different life would be from how I lived now, and while I was prepared for this I still found it difficult to accept the bitter truth that I may never see home again, that I may never see my family again, and that I might very well die a twenty-three year old boy with a girl on his mind and hope in his heart.
I stood in line with the other cadets, listened to my drill sergeant roar and order us to run in concentric circles around the base, and as I sprinted I could feel the sharp edges from the photograph scraping against my chest.
It was still there, still close, which meant that she was too.
Two weeks later I was on a boat and set to approach enemy territory from the shores when I felt a storm of never-ending gunfire assault our platoon and lead to a massacre so deadly that not even the most horrid nightmares could accurately depict.
“Go!” screamed my Lieutenant. “Go! Go! Go!”
I pushed forward and ran as fast as I could across the sandy shores and listened as the bombs exploded in and around where I was standing.
I took cover behind a trench with another squadron, peered over the divot, and fired.
“Hit’em!” someone shouted. “Kill these Nazi bastards!”
I fired again and for a moment I had forgotten where I was and what I was doing. I was trapped inside a cage that was conjured by my own fears, my own terrible reality. I tried to find a way to escape it but I was bogged down by the hard truths that had come as a result of war and death. And, in my moment of deep despair, a grenade blasted near my foot and several shards of shrapnel pierced through my boney leg.
“Ahhh!” I screamed.
I fell on my back, clutched my knee and seethed painfully.
“Medic!” screamed a soldier. “Somebody get a medic!”
“Ahhh,” I writhed.
The wound was deep but my pain was deeper.
“Hold on there, soldier,” he said. “Hold on.”
A man in a white helmet suddenly fell beside me and examined my injury.
“Jesus. Fuckin’ grenades,” he snapped.
He looked me up and down, grabbed my pants, and ripped the fabric.
I looked down and saw my skin torn and bleeding.
“This is gonna hurt,” the medic warned.
He powdered my wound with sulfa and I grunted.
The burning was intense but not nearly as intense as what was happening around me. Everywhere I looked there was someone who was either dead or dying, and I was just one of the many soldiers who was in need help. Everyone was in pain, everyone was close to death, and while I may have been weak from the explosion I was still strong enough to hold that photograph in my hand, and if I was strong enough to do hold a flakey picture the weight of a feather then I was strong enough to hold onto to my own life.
I was still strong enough to go on.
“You’re good,” said the medic.
He finished bandaging my wound and the second he stepped away I picked up my rifle and squeezed the trigger. I could feel every muscle in my body flexing at the same time and I was no longer the boy with a girl.
I was another man on the battlefield.
I was a soldier.
After we took the beach I reported to my new unit and was informed of my duties. I was to guard a bridge near a battered village and was to do it with a battalion of four other men, who, like me, were just trying to make it home. The first was Andrew and he was from Wisconsin, the second was Greg, and he was from Iowa, and then there was Brent, and he was from Brooklyn. Greg had a girl back home as well while Andrew told me that he had a brother who was enlisted in the Army the same as us. Brent was the youngest of three sisters, although he never talked much about them, and when I mentioned Rebecca, and told them about how I was going to marry her as soon as I got back, they didn’t say much. I think it was because they knew what the chances were of us seeing our families again, which were, to be quite honest, not good, not for any of us. But at night, when we were sheltered and everything was quiet, I would hold that picture beside a flickering candle and go back, back to Rebecca, back to the way everything used to be, and in that moment I was neither afraid nor alone.
I was safe.
A few days after that we were standing by the bridge when we saw Brent shot through the chest by an enemy sniper that was posted in a bell tower not far from where we were positioned.
“Down!” screamed Greg.
A second shot fired and missed my helmet by mere inches. I turned and fired back while Andrew fired too. We each took single shots from fifty meters away until we hit the gunman, and once we did each of us breathed a sigh of relief, that is until we saw Brent’s body.
“Dammit,” said Andrew. “God fuckin’ dammit.”
I tried not to cry, not here. But if I ever did feel the urge to do so I would find a quiet place and stay there until all the terrible feelings escaped and I was back to normal, or at least at a varying degree of normal. I remembered what I was told when I first entered the unit. Greg said that if I needed a minute I should take it. He said that the worst thing you can do is keep those feelings bottled up. He said that bad feelings will make you afraid, and being afraid will make you stupid, and stupid will make you dead. I didn’t comment on his advice but I didn’t stray from it either. If I needed a minute I took it, and after seeing my friend’s head blown off in front of me I needed more than one, I needed two.
I lit a smoke under a tree, inhaled, and reached into my pocket for the photograph. The color was now worn and the corners were dull and ripped, but I looked at it for as long as I could and unlike the other instances it now took longer for the picture to take effect, and I wondered if this would continue until the war ended or if I was fading away the same as the photo did.
I didn’t know for sure.
All I knew was that the more time I spent here the less of a chance I had of seeing Rebecca again. I couldn’t afford to think this way. I needed to stay sharp, stay cool, and remember that she was waiting for me as much as I was waiting for her.
On the eve of December we got hit again, and this time it was worse than before. We were trying to hold the bridge when a squadron of SS officers ambushed us. They cornered us between two buildings and told us to drop our weapons and raise our hands high into the air. We didn’t want to surrender but in the face of twenty guns we knew we had no other choice.
“Drop’em,” Greg said.
We dropped our weapons and stood before the squadron with grizzled expressions and watched as Greg barked at the commanding officer in his language, and although I didn’t know every word Greg was saying his tone said more than his words did, as did the peripheral glances he was giving to me, and once the tirade ended Greg yanked two grenades from his belt, pulled the pins, and pitched them towards the battalion.
“Run!” he shouted.
The explosion pummeled nearly half of the platoon but there were still others that were left standing. Greg glimpsed back at us, looked at the squadron, and reached for his pistol despite not nearly having enough ammunition to defend himself.
Andrew and I sprinted away from the scene and listened to the gunfire rain down upon our friend and reduce him to smithereens.
“Sie schiessen” screamed the German officer.
As Andrew and I hurried towards the bridge a rocket from one of the nearby tanks whistled past my ears. I hopped into the ditch, crashed into the swampy water, and felt the flame from soaring missile sear the back of my neck as I huffed and stared at the shooting tank.
“We’re safe,” I said with a heavy breath. “We’re safe.”
I didn’t think we would make it but I wasn’t thinking. I was running, and as we rested beneath the bridge I felt Andrew’s boney finger grasp my arm and listened to his voice crack as he whispered my name.
I turned and saw Andrew lying on his back, his hand pressed against his stomach and several bullet wounds appeared scattered throughout his chest.
I reached for my sack and removed as many bandages as I could but as I sat beside him and stared into his listless eyes I could see him losing consciousness and slipping away.
“Don’t go,” I said. “Please stay.”
Andrew coughed and his head slumped to the side, and in a matter of seconds he was taken and all the friends that have come to know and love were now gone, and I was alone. All I wanted to do was scream and shout and inflict as much pain as I possibly could and I wanted to do this because it was the only thing that I thought would give me a chance of staying alive. And when the dust settled and the bodies were buried, I found myself feeling rage, more than even I could control and as soon as I was given the order to return to the fight, that is exactly what I did.
I did what ever I needed to do in order to survive and each bullet that was fired at me I fired six more in return. I roared, hammered, and bled, and whenever I checked myself for wounds I glimpsed at the photograph and tried to remember who I was. If Rebecca saw me now she would hardly recognize me. I was changing more and more each day, with the only fragment of my old life being something so small that it was barely present at all. But a photograph is more than just an image burned into paper. It is a reminder of the memories you shared with the people you’ve met and serves as a perpetual embodiment of the person you once were and the person you will hopefully want to remain, and right now that was all I had.
It was the only thing that kept me going.
“Down!” my commander shouted.
I ducked and covered and in the midst of trying to save myself from yet another attack, the photo of Rebecca and I was blown from my hand and I fled from the scene. I dropped to the ground, turned and saw a battalion of soldiers marching towards me. I crawled along the debris and reached for the photograph resting in a crater.
“Ahhhh!” a voice roared from behind me.
I veered to the right and suddenly felt someone grapple me from behind. I tumbled and looked up at a German soldier screaming at the top of his lungs and reaching for his holstered sidearm. I grunted and grabbed his wrist before he could grip the handle of his weapon and punched him in the chin.
“Errg,” he exclaimed.
I kneed his back, sat up and head-butted his nose.
He gasped and pummeled my stomach and I answered back by hammer-punching his jaw and smacking him in the throat. He tried to hit me again but the second time I managed to I block his blow and retrieve my knife and raise it high above my head like a gladiator. I gazed harshly at my defeated opponent and listened as he coughed up blood and tried to resist but in the end he knew it was over, and that I had won.
I was ready to stab him and kill him the way his people had killed my brothers, and just as I was about to end his life I looked up at the photograph that was resting in the dirt. Half of it was buried while the other half was upturned in the rubble. Rebecca was looking right at me and I was suddenly frozen by her gaze and once again obliged by the simple promise that I would remember who I was and who I needed to be.
I bound the soldier by his wrists and handed him to my platoon commander.
“You sure he went quietly?” asked my sergeant. “German soldiers do.”
“Yes,” I said. “He went quietly.”
The sergeant’s right eye squinted with peculiar intent. He knew I wasn’t telling the truth, but it didn’t matter, for three days later we received word that the Axis powers were going to surrender and that the war we fought for so long was now over.
“Did you hear that?” said one of the soldiers. “Germany, Hitler, The Nazis, they’re all surrendering. Can you believe that? We’re going home, y’all? We’re going home.”
I didn’t speak, for I was far too captivated by what had been bestowed upon me. I celebrated the news with a few soldiers I had grown close to and together we walked around the badgered city, looked at all the wreckage while asking myself what it was that made me so lucky? Why I was allowed to go home when so many others were sent to their graves? I lost so many friends, so many brothers in arms and I could not determine why? Perhaps I was just lucky or perhaps I was fighting for something more than just freedom. Perhaps there was more happening here than just a war or perhaps the reason had been staring me in the face all along.
“What are you going to do when you get back?” one soldier asked another.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Hug my parents and tell everyone what happened over here, about what I did to defend our great country. I think my folks will be proud of me. What about you, John? What are you going to do once you get home?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
I reached into my pocket and grasped the photograph.
“I think I’m just going to continue where I left off.”
I flew back the next day but I didn’t tell Rebecca when I was set to land. I wanted to surprise her. I drove straight to her house and marched along the stone path that jutted across her lawn, hopped up the wooden porch and thought about everything that happened in the two years I had been away. There were many things that kept me alive while I was at war. There were many people and many lucky instances when my life was spared when it should have easily been taken, and it was these brief moments, these split seconds in time, where something happens to you that you cannot prepare for and something you can only respond to by how you choose to live once it’s all over. These are the moments that matter and when I was on the ground bleeding, riddled with pain, and when I thought I was never going to see home again, these were the moments I held onto.
Love is combination of moments. It is a picture that contains the very best of them and finds a way to bring you back, and I was fortunate enough to be given something that was capable of doing this and even more fortunate to return to the person who gave me my most important moment in my life.
I raised my hand to knock on the door but before I could someone opened for me. I wanted to speak to Rebecca, fall into her arms, and tell her happy I was to be with her, but in the end I didn’t have to.
The photo in my hands said it all.