The windswept landscape carpeted with dull yellow prairie grass seemed to undulate with the rise and fall of gently rolling hills. Hazy, late September sunshine lay across the broad expanse of fields and meadows, spritzing wildflowers, wheat and thistles with luminescent light. In this place known as the South Dakota Badlands, rock formations stood like tiered layers of rainbow-colored slices of cake that connected Earth to sky. The constant hum of flying insects, grasshoppers and crickets, and the birdsong of tern, finch and meadowlark, was a chorale of winged creatures, large and small.
John True Eagle, called Johnny T by his high school classmates, raised his head above the swaying sunburned grass, scanned the bare dirt atop the nearest hillock giving it the look of a balding scalp, and using his teeth, pulled the imaginary grenade pin from an old tennis ball and lobbed it high into the air across the grassless dome. Before it exploded, spraying a troop of grasshoppers with death and destruction, he rolled over onto his back, tightly grasped against his chest the tree branch that served as his weapon found among the reeds of the only pond within miles, closed his eyes, and awaited the expected blast. He counted six seconds – “One thousand and one. One thousand and two…” – then delivered the awaited noise from deep within his throat, sending spittle, whistling, whoosing and kapows into the wind.
War was hell.
He rose from his position in the grass and with his mother’s colander serving as a helmet bouncing on his head, he weaved and bobbed to elude enemy fire as he sprinted across the field to the place where he left his jeep, a Huffy’s bicycle he bought with the money he earned delivering groceries after school for Wibley’s Market. Every Saturday morning he rode to this location to engage in combat with the enemy, the Nazis. He found his jeep where he had left it, hidden in an alcove in the wall of a dry river bed that ran alongside the road.
On the way home he held off an onslaught of gunfire from the Wafen-SS. He pulled up to the front of his house with a chigger bites and a slightly strained calf muscle.
The lingering odors of fry bread and hamburger patties cooked in lard hung in the air like a cloud of impending heart disease. Lorna, John’s mother, the perfect WAC in his opinion, sat across from him at the table cutting up the hamburger for John’s great grandfather, Oliver True Blood, who had just reached age 97. He had lived in Lorna and John’s home from the time John was an infant, serving as grandfather, substitute father, resident Sioux Indian Chief, and Commanding General, to the boy as he grew up. All that John knew about his actual father, was that he disappeared one day before marrying his mother who was attending college at the time. Like a prairie dog, his father stuck his head out occasionally from whatever foxhole he was hiding in on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Sightings of him filtered through a maze of family members on the reservation to Lorna. She no longer cared.
Pushed to the table in his wheelchair, Oliver looked at his grandson. “It was the ninth of December . . .”
John looked at his mother. “Ma, he’s starting again. I’ve heard this one a hundred times before.”
“Let him be,” she said.
“It was cold, even if it was Italy, between Naples and Rome. You could see the town of San Pietro down in the valley. My buddies and I were stationed on a hill that overlooked the entire Liri Valley. The Germans had control of the town, the valley, everything in sight was in the hands of Hitler’s Nazis.”
“Grandpa I already know it was called the German ‘Winter Line’ so please don’t tell me that again,” John intoned.
“Horrible man, that Hitler, and the ones who followed him, just as bad.”
“Yeah, Grandpa, I know all about Hitler too,” John mumbled, followed by a long sigh.
That night, as John stared out his bedroom window from his bed at the star-splattered sky, he watched for Mustangs, Hellcats or Warhawks to fly overhead, prepared to meet a formation of the German Luftwaffe’s fierce and deadly Messerschmitts. The sounds of a screeching owl and far off cry of a coyote replaced the rapid fire of bullets shot from the planes.
He rolled over onto his side, facing away from the window and wondered why he couldn’t express his love of war with the one man in his life who taught him so much about it.
In his old age the only thing that his grandfather really remembered was the time he was assigned to the Army’s 3rd Ranger Battalion under the command of Major General Geoffrey Keyes. He had marched across land at a quick pace from France to arrive at the Winter Line in time to meet up with the other fighting units to launch the offensive against the German 15th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. It was a battle fought in the air, on the land, man to man, and tank to tank.
Sunday morning, John awoke to the church bells of the Wasta Methodist Church, got out of bed and slipped on his pants. He raised his window and stood there for several moments listening to rat-a-tat machine gun fire of the birds chirping in the large oak tree that stood next to the house. One of the pleasant things about living in the small town of Wasta, South Dakota, was the abundance of trees. He turned from the window and went down stairs. His grandfather was seated at the table eating a bowl of oatmeal. John kissed him on the forehead. “Good morning, Grandpa.”
The old man looked up. “You gotta look out for them Jerrys, boy.”
“I know, Grandpa.” He adjusted the bib around his grandfather’s neck and then went into the kitchen. His mother was standing at the sink gazing as if lost in thought out the window above the sink.
“See any Panzers out there?” he asked as he sidled up beside her.
She laughed. “You sound like Grandpa. He’s been in fine form this morning.”
“You think he’ll reach 100?”
“Hard to say,” she answered. She put her arm around his shoulders. “What are you going to do today?”
“I thought I’d ride out to the mudflats and take a look around.”
“Why not call one of your school friends to go with you?”
He pulled away. “My friends aren’t interest in the same things that I am.” He took a spoon out of the utensils drawer next to the sink and then went to the cupboard and took out a box of Lucky Charms and a bowl. “I can stay home and take care of Grandpa if you’d like me to.”
“No, that’s okay. I have some things to do to prepare for classes tomorrow so I’m stuck here anyway. As you know, Sundays are the sixth workday for most teachers.”
“That’s why I’m not going to be a teacher,” he said as he left the kitchen. As he sat down at the table he heard her say, “You’re not going to be a teacher because you hate studying.”
Although it was nearing Autumn, the mid-morning sun had already dried the dew from the grass and tree leaves as John biked Hwy 1416 going Northwest from Wasta. In his backpack he had several old tennis balls, his mother’s colander, a bottled water, and a ham sandwich wrapped in wax paper. In the fifteen minutes since leaving town, not a single vehicle passed him from either direction. The highway wasn’t used much even on weekdays, but on weekends there was a small uptick in traffic. The drive along the Cheyenne River that flowed alongside the road at some points was considered a leisurely scenic drive. He smelled the mudflats even before reaching them. It was a slight odor, like that of wet, mildewed clothes mixed with the earthy smells of mud and decaying vegetation. At the mudflats he stopped and scanned the football field sized stretch of land that bordered the river. The gray-brown mud was wet from where the river had overflowed its banks caused by a recent downpour. A few dead trees stuck up out of the mud, their rotting bark a dark brown, almost black color, their broken limbs reaching out like crooked, arthritic fingers. Here the river’s currents were stronger than in most places and the swirling water was tinged with gray.
He reached around and took out the colander and put it on his head. With his helmet in place, he laid the bike in a patch of tall grass, hiding the jeep, and then took off his shoes and tied them to the back wheel and removed his socks and stuffed them in the backpack. He took the grenades from the backpack and stuffed them in his pockets and then laid the backpack on the jeep. He stooped down, attempting to remain unseen by the Krauts who frequently patrolled this area and waddled across the ground before stopping to pick up a bazooka that had fallen from a tree at the edge of the mudflats. He rested it in the crook of his arms as he lowered his body, belly flat on the ground, and then began to slither across the mud that clung to his body in thick, paste-like sticky globs.
At the river bank he raised up, saw a cow grazing in the prairie grass on the ground above the slight incline on the other side of the narrow river. He took a grenade from his pocket, pulled its pin, and then tossed the grenade at the Panzer. He ducked down until after the grenade exploded a few feet away from the Panzer that didn’t respond to the surprise attack. He then aimed his bazooka at it.
He didn’t see the four Krauts who snuck up along the river bank until it was too late. He dropped his bazooka.
Russell, Lyle, Troy and Mark grabbed him before he could completely rise up from the mud.
“Hey guys, look what we got here,” Troy said, pinning John’s right arm behind his back and yanking him to his feet. Lyle grabbed his other arm as Mark put John in a headlock.
Standing in front of John, Russell grabbed the colander from John’s head and placed it askew on his own. “Well if it ain’t that crazy Indian, Johnny T.”
“Let me go, you assholes,” John snarled. Oh how he hated the Krauts!
“Assholes he calls us,” Russell said, punching John in the stomach.
John knew, because his grandfather told him often enough, don’t show fear or pain in the face of the enemy. He tried to not react.
Russell got up close, putting his face close to John’s. “You ain’t so tough you piece of shit.”
The same anger that he felt every time these guys did this kind of thing to him welled up from deep inside him. He spat in Russell’s face.
Then they all began to punch him. After he fell to the ground they kicked him until he lost consciousness.
When John awoke he looked around, saw that his classmates were gone, his mother’s colander taken by them. He pulled himself up from the mud and waded far enough in the river to wash himself off without being dragged under by the strong current. He then walked along the bank, avoiding the mud, until he was past the mudflat, then he walked to the road and doubled back to where he had left his bike and backpack. He sat down and took out his sandwich, unwrapped it and tried to eat it, but his jaw hurt and the pain in his left, back upper gum, told him that a tooth had been dislodged. He tossed the uneaten sandwich away, and then stood up, put his backpack on and then got on his bike and rode home.
He arrived there in time to see an ambulance parked in front of his house. Two paramedics wheeled a gurney out the door with a body on it covered by a sheet. His mother followed behind, crying.
John looked skyward, to the great spirits in the sky, and emitted a war cry.
Too lost in grief the night before, John’s mother didn’t notice his black eye or cut lip.
He left early for school on his bike, instead of taking the school bus, before his mother woke up, to ride the almost fourteen miles to Wall, where the high school he attended was located. In his backpack he had a new helmet – his mother’s large metal mixing bowl – and several grenades. He waited down the street from the school, hiding among some bushes until thirty minutes after he heard the last of the morning school bells. He then dismounted his bike and put the helmet on his head and the grenades in his pockets. He left the bike in the bushes and marched down the street, picking up a rifle from under a tree along the way. He entered the school a little after morning classes had begun in earnest.
He passed the school office, quietly walked down the hall, his back pressed against the walls and lockers, and tread softly past the closed doors of the other classes until he reached the room where he knew the Krauts would be. He took a grenade from his pocket, took several deep breaths, and then kicked open the door. He ran into the room, lobbed the grenade to the back of the room, where the Nazi soldiers were seated, then raised his machine gun and sprayed them with bullets.
He then collapsed to his knees and began to sob, and sob, and sob.