A Bastogne Tribute
There was snow on the ground in South Jersey when, for the second year, I made my way out to the range to fire a Bastogne Tribute clip. As with the year before I left my SUV near the front gate, shouldered my M1, and made my way through a snow covered forest and on to the 600 yd range.
The tree shadows fell blue and long as the sun set through the leafless cold of the winter twilight. As I trudged through the knee deep snow, my right hand slid up along the sling, adjusting the weight of the M1 upon my shoulder. I was careful about finding my footing, intermittently looking down and then ahead, mindful of the Achilles injury I sustained last February (mostly healed at this point; but still an issue).
Like a runner I began to develop a rhythm to my breathing and the movement of my legs through the snow. Besides the dull crunch of snow beneath my footfalls and my hushed breath, the woods were silent. It seemed as if even the trees had chosen to participate in the solemnity of my winter mission. As I moved further along the winding road toward the range my mind began to fill with thoughts of the men who moved through that Belgian forest of the Ardenne where the fateful Battle of the Bulge raged and stood altogether alone 68 years ago.
With every footstep, I soon began to imagine myself back in what seems now to be another life, humping with my unit deep in a jungle some place on the other side of the world. Just ahead and spread out in the woods were LaPorte, J.W., Shiloh, Freddy Bear, Kendal, and big Jim Davis; their shoulders, gait, and silhouette, etched indelibly in my heart and mind.
And as my minds eye studied the backs of brothers and fellow paratroopers moving slowly and quietly through the green hue of diffused jungle light, M-16s at port and the ready; suddenly jungle fatigues blurred to heavy wool great coats, and the anodized black of M-16s became parkerized steel and walnut M-1s. The tropical sounds that had filled my minds air, muted to the thickness of muffled artillery fire wafting along the bitter haze of frigid fog.
Instinctively the M-1 came down from my shoulder and my erect gate became crouched as my eyes focused and intensified on the squad leader ahead.
Signal to stop. Down.
I looked around as the squad, quickly moved to their knees, myself included.
Silence, and then imperceptible at first a whisper. Then another.
German. Subdued voices, they were German.
No one moved.
Through the woods ahead, perhaps only 75 yards, concealed in white parkas, what might have been a platoon sized element skulled through the pines like a hungry band of wolves.
As the figures slowly moved on and away, blending into the deep white woods, the squad leaders head turned, he pointed and beckoned me to his side.
I moved up slow and low, careful not to make noise and sided up to the squad leader. As his eyes continued to follow the camouflaged troops I considered the man to my side, and the faded and seemingly familiar shamrock on his helmet. He turned his head toward me and placed a finger to his lips. It was the trooper from last Christmas!
You came back, kid, he whispered approvingly, just like you said. He gave me an unshaven smile nudging my shoulder while motioning toward my breast pocket.
I fumbled for a pack of cigarettes, shook the pack and watched him slide one out. He placed it between his lips, from his jacket pocket he produced a classic zippo. He expertly flicked the flame to life cupping a hand over both the lighter and cigarette and then out with a deft movement of his wrist. I couldnt help but admire the silver wings affixed to the side and Curahee inscription.
How've you been?, I whispered excitedly. Last year I wasnt sure if I was mean, it was dark and ,
He drew deeply on his cigarette, hunched down in the snow, M-1 cradled between his arms. His eyes locked with mine. Relax kid, I understand ... hey, how's the family?
Great, just great, I stammered.
And what about Jersey, how's life back home?, he questioned.
I shook my head and offered up, I think I'd be better off in Montana.
He smiled and responded quietly, I feel for you pal, but from where I stand, I cant quite reach ya.
We looked at each other and began to laugh.
After about a minute or two the tenor of the moment deepened.
Here, I want to show you something, he whispered softly, lean in. He rotated his M-1s receiver toward me and nodded toward the heel stamp. Can you read what that says?
The sun was down below the trees by now and there was just enough ambient light left in the day for me to make out the stamp on the receiver. In a hushed voice I read aloud, U.S. RIFLE, CAL. 30 M1, WINCHESTER, TRADEMARK, 146,844.
His eyes narrowed as he lifted his chin and gestured toward the M-1 I was holding, Now go ahead and read yours.
In the same hushed voice I read, U.S. RIFLE, CAL. 30 M1, WINCHESTER, TRADEMARK, 146,844. Looking down at the rifle I shook my head knowingly.
I felt his hand on my shoulder as he began to speak. His voice was gentle yet tough as iron all at once, Listen son, I want you to know something, I'm as real as that rifle you're holding right there in your hand, make no mistake about that.
I looked up into his eyes. He was someone's son, someone's brother, and someone's father. He was much more than any imagination could ever conjure. He was heart and soul, blood and bravery, strength and righteousness.
That M-1s a torch son. It burned bright during some of the darkest hours in history. Its yours now you've got the flame, its up to you to keep it burning, he implored, I know you won't let me down; Roger that Airborne?
All the way Sarge, I affirmed.
All the way and then some, he responded. We've got to move out now, he slipped off his rifle mitten and offered me his hand. It was as rough and calloused and warm and strong as it was the year before. Listen, he began, I want you to thank you and the rest of the guys too. Let em know that I, we, appreciate their thoughts and prayers. We hear them just as well as we hear their M-1s!
He gave a quick slap on the back, signaled the squad to move out, and with a wink he whispered, Till next year son, and then disappeared into the grey haze of winters twilight.
Clutching my M-1, I continued on to the 600 yard range, where an enormous blanket of snow covered the entire area.
At waist, aiming the M-1 down range, I pulled the bolt to the rear. Slipping off a glove, I reached into my jacket pocket for a loaded enbloc, cradled the M-1 in my left hand while pulling the op-rod to the rear, pushing the clip down, removing my thumb and then releasing the op-rod with the heel of my hand allowing the bolt to ride forward and chamber the first round.
I took careful aim and as the pale while light of the moon replaced that of the magenta sun I squeezed off my first. The rifle reported with a dynamic CRACK that echoed through out the atmosphere, and spouted a brilliant orange flame; the smell of burnt gun powder filled the crisp night air.
As I did last year, I fired all 8 rounds until the clip sang with a ping and then arced out of the magazine and into the snow. I recovered it and once again warmed my hand on the warm barrel of the rifle.
Back in the warmth of my car, before swinging out on to the road, I checked my watch and decided to make a quick call to my wife to let her know I was on the way home. Reaching into my jacket pocket searching for my cell, I instead found myself holding a lighter. I flicked on the interior lights of my car and considered the silver gem that sat in the palm of my hand. On one side there was a pair of jump wings with Curahee etched below it. On the other side was an inscription that read: You Won't Let Me Down
To all who read this post: Merry Christmas God Bless and God Bless America.