Carl lay flat on his back staring up at the olive drab ceiling of his tent. Why the hell did I volunteer for this? he thought. No answer came. Sighing, he grabbed his rifle and rolled off his groundsheet into a crouch. Time to get to work. He pulled opened the tent flap and ducked through the opening. In the distance people were milling about. Carl yawned and turned to the east. He blinked as the sun lit up the white marble of the Washington Monument. Show time.
Carl, knelt on one knee and began opening the crates and spreading the gear out. Oh crud, he thought, looking at his knee on the ground. I hope I don’t get grass stains on the uniform. Mom’ll kill me. He ran back into the tent to get his groundsheet.
Carl spread the groundsheet out on the grass in front of the tent. Knees safe from grass stains, he knelt and continued unloading the crate. He placed his Enfield 303 rifle carefully down, even though it wasn’t loaded and probably couldn’t even fire if it was.
"Hey buddy, you ready?" It was Derrick, Carl’s assigned tent mate. Only he was two hours late.
"Where you been, Derrick?" Carl asked. "I had to set up everything myself."
"Yeah, sorry about that." Derrick grinned and looped his thumbs through his M-1943 Combat Field Pack. He rocked on his heels tugging at the pack straps. "Me and wife were having a…discussion."
Carl shook his head and went back to the task of laying out the contents of the crate. Derrick’s such a showoff. He knows I’d kill to have a pack like that. Carl finished arranging the K-rations, entrenching tools, shaving kit, mess kit, gas mask and spare boxes of food rations on the groundsheet. Everything but ammo and grenades.
Carl sighed. How he wished he could go to Normandy, but the funds just weren’t there. Instead, he was here putting on a show for the tourists.
"Say," Derrick muttered, walking closer to Carl. "Is that an original 8th Infantry Division shoulder patch?"
Now it was Carl’s turn to gloat. "The entire uniform is an original 8th Infantry Division uniform."
"No way!" Derrick whistled as he walked around Carl, admiring his uniform. "Impressive. You should be in Normandy with the re-enactors!"
Carl scowled. "Nah. Can’t afford it."
"Yeah, I hear ya. Rich kids pretending to be war heroes." Derrick knelt to rearrange some items, Carl had meticulously positioned. "Where’d you get the uniform, anyways?"
"My grandpa," Carl replied, "Grandpa Frank. My mom’s dad. He was there. At Normandy."
Private Frank Fowler suppressed the urge to throw up as the Higgins boat slapped against the waves heading towards the beach. He really couldn’t complain too much. His division was landing a month after the first Normandy landing. He had heard it was a slaughter on the beach. Poor guys, he thought to himself.
"Get ready!" the sergeant barked out as the landing craft approached the beach. Frank stole one last look at the photograph his wife had sent of his little girl. Golly, she’s cute. Looks like her mother.
Thump! The landing craft door slapped down against the sand. Frank stood up and waited his turn to march down the ramp. No bullets or explosions this time, thank God! Private Samuel Collins slapped Frank on the back. He seemed to know what Frank was thinking.
"Get moving Frank!" He chuckled. "Those are staff officer tents up ahead. Action’s all over."
"Shut up Collins!" the sergeant yelled. "Move your butt! You’ll see some action soon!"
Sadly, the sergeant was right. After marching three days, Frank’s platoon ran smack into the Germans, hiding in a giant hedgerow near the town of Brest.
"Dig in! Dig in!" came the call. Frank grabbed his entrenching shovel and attacked the ground. Sam worked furiously beside him. They didn’t need much encouragement. Both knew the value of a good foxhole.
Carl handed the entrenching tool to the teenager in the AC/DC t-shirt. "Soldiers used these to dig foxholes when they were under attack, " he explained.
The teenager stared at the tool in his hand as if he had no idea which end went up. "Boring, dude. Where are all the guns and stuff?"
"Over here, Brad!" yelled a younger kid in a Red Sox jersey. "The really cool stuff is up ahead!"
Carl and Derrick watched the kids run towards the front of the National Mall where the more modern guns, tanks, and artillery pieces were sitting out on display as part of the Military Appreciation Day event.
"Punks!" Derrick spat. "Don’t appreciate history."
Carl placed the shovel back on the groundsheet. "I was just like them at that age. Did I tell you that I actually did go to Normandy?"
"No, man."’
"Yeah, I went with Grandpa Frank when I was a kid. Bored out of my mind. We just drove around a bunch of puny old French villages. Only thing I really remember was the trip to the cemetery."
"The American Military Cemetery?"
"Yep. Grandpa Frank stopped at a particular headstone and saluted it. Someone named Samuel. I forget the last name. And Grandpa cried. Only time I ever saw him cry."
"Frank, wake up!" Sam nudged him in the ribs with his elbow.
"I gotta go!" Sam whined, his face scrunched up.
"Use the steel pot, moron." Frank closed his eyes, again. Sleep was precious. "My helmet? No sir. Look, I’m gonna dash over to those bushes."
Frank opened his eyes. "No Sam, you can’t leave the hole. It’s suicide."
Before Frank could stop him, Sam leaped out of the hole and ran. He almost made it to the bush without being noticed.
"Collins!" a voice roared. Then a gun fired followed by a burst of gunfire as the entire platoon opened up.
"Cease fire! Cease fire!" yelled Sarge.
Silence. Frank looked for Sam. Nothing. Minutes passed. Frank kicked the side of the foxhole in frustration. Then a body fell on top of him.
"Oh, I feel so much better," Sam smiled.
"You jerk!" Frank pulled back his fist to slug his pal.
"Here they come!" someone outside the foxhole yelled. Frank dropped his hand and racked the bolt of his Enfield.
The lady in the tank top and cutoff shorts tugged at the bolt on Derrick’s rifle while trying to balance the rest of the rifle in her left hand.
"This is really hard," she exclaimed.
Derrick smiled at her. "Well, the soldiers had lots of practice."
She handed it back and looked at the ration cans spread on the groundsheet. "Did they actually carry around these cans?"
"Yes ma’am," Carl replied. "A typical soldier carried over fifty pounds on his back."
"Wow, those guys were tough."
"Yes ma’am. They really were."
Frank stumbled in the dark, his knees slamming against the hard trail, packed down by thousands of feet and heavy machinery. Sam helped him up. Neither man had eaten or slept in two days.
"Only a little farther. We’re gonna sleep in a barn, Frank. Nice soft hay." Sam placed Frank’s hand on his pack.
"Just hang on to me, buddy. We’re almost there."
Frank nodded. He was exhausted from two days of fighting through the hedgerows then house-to-house. A sleep in the hay sounded nice.
The barn smelled like horse manure, but Frank didn’t care. He dropped into the hay and fell asleep, still wearing his pack and helmet. Sometime in the night, a loud bang woke him up. His brain screamed Grenade! but his body just didn’t care. He fell back asleep.
"Wake up!" Someone was shaking him. It wasn’t Sam. He looked up to see the Sarge’s ugly mug. "Wake up, Fowler!"
Frank managed to sit up. His body ached all over, but the sleep had helped a lot. "Listen, Fowler, something happened last night."
Frank’s mind felt fuzzy.
"Collins was on guard duty."
The words sounded far away. Frank stared at the Sarge’s face while his mind struggled to focus.
"Some kraut tossed a grenade into the barn." Frank held his breath.
"Collins jumped on it. Saved everyone." Frank exhaled.
"Sorry." Hands tapped Frank’s helmet and fingers squeezed his shoulder as his platoon mates tried to comfort him.
"Your grandpa still around?" Derrick asked as another half-bored group of tourists wandered away, unimpressed.
"Nah. He died a few years back. I helped Mom clean out his stuff. It was all so…grownup." "Whaddya mean?"
"I mean his desk. The stuff on it was so grownup. There was a brass letter opener, a pipe, this fancy tobacco pouch, and an expensive pen and pencil set. Who spends all that money on a pen and pencil? And in the drawers, there were these ivory handled pocket knives, a pocket watch, and a gold money clip."
Carl turned to look Derrick in the eye. "A money clip, man."
Derrick chuckled.
"You know what’s on my computer desk?" Carl asked. "A Boba Fett bobble head doll, a Dilbert coffee mug, a Far Side calendar and a bunch of Star Wars Lego figures. "
Derrick nodded.
Carl shook his head. "What happened to us?"
Derrick shrugged, "I don’t know man."
Frank sat on the ruins of a wall near a pile of rubble that was once a house. He held an open can of K-rations, but he didn’t feel hungry. Two kids, a boy and girl in filthy, tattered rags, crawled out from the partially destroyed building across the street. Frank noticed them staring at him. They looked awfully skinny. He reached into his pack and pulled out two chocolate bars. He held them out in front of himself like a hunter trying to lure in wild game.
They didn’t need much coaxing. The two kids dashed across the street and snatched the bars from his hands. They babbled in French as the tore into the wrappers with their teeth. Frank had no idea what they were saying. He just nodded.
As they ate, Frank pulled K-rations out of his pack and stacked them on the ground with a can opener on top. Might as well he figured. He had double rations, his and…
"Move out!" came the call.
Frank shouldered his pack and looked down at the kids. He pointed to them and then pointed to the food. "Yours!" They stopped chewing and stared wide-eyed. He wasn’t sure they understood.
"Yours!" he pointed again. They still stared. Frank shrugged, turned and walked away.
"Oh my God! Oh my God!" An old man with a heavy French accent pointed at the food rations on Carl’s groundsheet. "I remember these!" he sputtered to the women with him, probably his wife.
Carl stopped showing the shaving kit to a middle-aged couple.
"I remember these! When I was a boy, in the war!" the French man continued as Derrick, Carl and the couple listened.
"An American soldier gave us these. My sister and me. We were starving. He saved our lives!"
Tears flowed down the man’s face. His wife squeezed his hand and patted his shoulder.
"Thank you! Thank you! God bless American soldiers! God bless American soldiers!"
Carl blinked rapidly, as the man vigorously shook his hand then Derrick’s. Something’s in my eye, Carl thought. He noticed Derrick and the middle-aged couple having the same problem.
After the French couple left, Carl and Derrick fell quiet. There may have been a few more tourists after them, but they didn’t notice much. The day was over. They packed up the tent and crated up the supplies.
"See ya next year, Carl."
"Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Derrick."
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