By Ira Blumenthal
I woke up with the all too familiar feeling of damp socks clinging to my feet, my undershirt clinging to my skin, and the aching from my sore legs. I looked up at the sky on this brisk November morning and tried to find a picture in the clouds. There was one cloud that resembled a cannon, one cloud that resembled the head of dog, and the funniest one I could make out was one that looked like my mother’s stern face. However, it was the screaming that brought me back to earth, back to the devastating battleground that was the Western Front in 1917.
Although my best friend Ernst and I were away from the trench in no man’s land, the screaming rifled through the air, piercing the ears of all. I woke up and looked around the landscape. What was likely once a beautiful forest and home to hundreds of animals was now a bare muddy wasteland, ravaged by the shells raining from the heavens, as if God was punishing the poor forest critters for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I looked to my left and saw Ernst already in a sniping position, elbow deep in mud. He had probably been in this position all night.
“About time you got up Albert, I was wondering whether or not a shell had killed you in your sleep”, he joked.
“You wish Ernst, then you could steal my sausage rations you greedy fucking
bastard,” I joked back.
“Alright jokester, grab your gun and get in position. We have to finish our mission. I can’t imagine spending another day in this muddy hellhole,” Ernst said sternly.
“One sec, Ernie. I’m coming over,” I joked. Ernst and I were special unit snipers. We were hand-picked by our superiors to undergo grueling training to become an Armadillo, the best of the best. It was the worst three months of my life. Everyone who endured it nicknamed the training “100 days in hell.”
Our training was meant to scare us to our maximum. So when we were completing missions and we got caught up in a bad situation, we would just think, I endured worse in training, nothing can scare me. The first day of training was the hardest of the 100 days for me. I was a fresh-faced 18-year-old who had just left home and my mother’s delicious cooking for the first time in my life. On my journey to the training course, I shared the train compartments with my future comrades, all of whom looked around twice my age. “Shaving this morning was a sad day. Won’t get any razors out in hell now will we, eh?,” they would joke to each other, excluding me from any of their conversations. It was clear I was on my own in this training exercise. The first exercise was a terrain course through the adjacent forest. Naturally, I tripped and hurt my foot the first second I could. “Uh oh, the baby dove has taken a tumble,” my older comrades would jeer, as I lay in the mud, wondering what the hell I was even doing in this hellish place. However, I noticed one of my comrades waited back and had his hand extended out towards mine, pulling me out of the mud. He was around my age and said with a smile to me, “We all fall sometimes, don’t we? But what matters is getting up and facing the world afterward.” “Thanks a lot, man, I needed this help,” I said, returning the smile as we made our way to the finish line together, as friends. Without Ernst, I would have never completed my training at all.
The mission Ernst and I had was a prestigious one; it was rumored that the Lord of the Admiralty was making a visit to the enemy trenches. Our job was to spend a week in our mud hole home and wait for him to show his fat ugly British face and kill him. His death would cause disarray in their Navy, and we could launch our Naval assault on England. We had already waited 4 days, and we only had one more day of rations left before we had to leave. I was tired, but determined. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. It was my family– Mama, Papa, and my little sister Jane. I clutched the photo to my heart. “Why do you have to go, big brother? I need you here. What if you die?,” Jane cried to me in our final embrace. “Jane, I promise I’ll see you again. I don’t plan on dying yet. I’m only 18,” I said confidently, as I affectionately flicked her nose. “I’ll be back before you know it.” That moment we shared was one year ago, six months longer than I expected to be here. Yet, I will never forget the tears in her eyes as I waved to her from the train departing the station. Training was able to make me fearless, but I still feared one thing; not being able to see her tears of joy upon my return.
Jane was a special child with an uncanny artistic talent. On our walks, she would bring her notepad and make little drawings of all the things she would see. She always told me, “Art is everywhere if you look hard enough for it, Albert. You just need to try!” I never really understood her fascination with art until I arrived at the front. The landscapes were all destroyed, unfortunately, so I couldn’t draw them well, but the clouds were still the same. I never had time to draw my creations on paper, but I was always able to form beautiful masterpieces in my mind. I couldn’t wait to go back home and tell Jane about all the art I saw in the clouds and created at the front. She would be delighted!
“Albert, heads up! We have some activity up ahead; stay sharp!” Ernst said, bringing me back to reality. I looked up and saw the British soldiers moving their mortars and machine guns.
“Ernst, we should find cover; an attack seems imminent. We shouldn’t get caught out in the open like sitting ducks,” I said.
“Alright, let’s move out.”
We gathered our rifles and began to move back to our trenches. However, as we were moving back to our trench, Ernst, who was in front of me, took one heavy stride forward and when his foot hit the ground, the ground responded with an almighty click. Ernst turned around, his face for the first time full of fear, and cried to me, “Albert, do something! You have to help me! You can’t leave me! I need you to help me!” I stood frozen in shock. This couldn’t be happening. I mumbled something back to him but even I couldn’t make sense of it. I heard the sound of machine gun fire unload from the enemy trenches as shells began to land all around us. I took one step towards my friend and hesitated.
“Ernst, I don’t know what to do,” I cried desperately, more to myself rather than to Ernst.
“Albert, try something! Anything! Just don’t leave me!” he said, realizing my decision before I even made it. I took a quick glance at the clouds and saw the same ones in the sky: the cannon, the dog, and my mother. However, it looked like the cannon was firing, the dog was mid-bark and my mother was staring down at me, imploring me to run away from my friend. I looked at my friend one last time, rose my right hand in salute. “Requiescat in pace, my brother,” I said before turning around and escaping the hellish situation, leaving my comrade to a gruesome death of either flying shrapnel rifling through the air, or the mine he was standing on exploding. I ran toward my trench and climbed over the other side, deserting my comrades. I had endured enough pain and wanted to see some light. I wished to see my beloved sister soon. Then all went black.
I woke up in chains with a massive headache and a large welt on my head. I must have been hit in the head by shrapnel, my helmet saving my life. I could tell I was back in my own trench, because I recognized the soldiers, not by name, but by face. I wasn’t that close to anyone except Ernst. Everyone around looked at me with livid expressions as if I had done something wrong. Two soldiers walked in and said, “Albert, follow us please,” picking me up and lugging me outside, into a sunny day with light rain falling from the sky. I looked around and saw four soldiers holding rifles, all of them staring at me. The two escorting me plopped me in front of a tree and pinned a little target to my chest. How comical. I took one last look at the clouds and I could see my sister Jane in cloud form, raining tears from the sky on my final day of reckoning.