The New Soldiers

In the second before there was a voice on the other end of the line, I could hear in the background the squawk of someone being paged and the bell of a nearby elevator. I knew it was my mother calling, and why.

Some eight hours later, I was sitting on the edge of my father’s hospital bed. He was swollen, his features blurry from a day’s worth of fluids. He had a blood infection, and the doctors had spoken mostly in ominous tones. My mother filled me in as he lay between us, his eyes cast down like a child who had been caught.

I had pulled in after midnight, but my mother had been up for twenty-four hours straight. I thought she would resist when I told her to go home and sleep, and was pleased when she didn’t. She kissed his forehead and told him she would be here in the morning to see the doctor, and then I walked her down to the parking lot.

By the front entrance, a woman was sitting on a bench, weeping into her small hands. A minister was sitting next to her. “Well, we can’t really understand it all,” he was saying, his eyes fixed on some distant point.

Back in the room, I could see my father was bored with sleep. He was weak, but he wanted to talk. He had worked up some jokes about how the nurses were treating him—a few which I remembered from previous stays. We talked about my drive down, the weather, and soon a kind of low-hum silence settled over us. I was tired and struggling to keep up my end of the deal, but when the murky green tattoo—an eagle and flag—on his forearm flashed across the sheets, I thought of Korea. He served in the Korean War, and he liked to tell stories about his time there.

“Hey, tell me that story again about that chaplain on the train to Korea,” I said. “Tell me that story.”

His eyes went wide. “Help me sit up,” he said. We fiddled with his bed control, sending him frontward and back, and then he cleared his throat:

“Well, those days after basic training were all travel. Training was tough—I mean, it was brutal. They tried to tell us what war was like, to prepare us, you know, but it hadn’t fully sunk in. We thought nothing could be worse than training.”

He coughed into his fist.

“First, we were on a troop ship to Japan. There was nothing to do for sixteen days—and to us, that was living. When we got to Japan, they put us on a transport headed to Korea. And from there, some trucks carried us to a rail yard. Everybody was pretty loose; fellows were joking around. We were green, as they would say. We’d heard the horror stories, you know, but they were just stories. We couldn’t really grasp it. We were just a bunch of new soldiers.

“Eventually, a train pulled in for us. It had these wooden seats with backs that were about eighteen inches high. We’d been on a similar train, and when the train jerked, buddy, you almost broke your back. It was too much for me, so I got up and climbed up on some duffel bags stacked in the corner. I figured someone would tell me to get down, but I was going to sit there until they did.

“So we were waiting to push off, and this army chaplain—a priest—came walking down the aisle. Older fellow—gray hair, ruddy face. He had a chalice and wafers, and he was giving communion to everyone—anyone who’d take it. He’d dip the wafer in the wine and give it to each soldier, then offer a blessing. He really pleaded with every one of us to receive it, and I don’t think anyone refused him. By now, you see, a stark realization was setting in. I mean, you couldn’t hear anything but the sound of his boots squeaking and the offerings he was whispering. But then you could start to hear, these men—these tough men—who just couldn’t compose themselves any longer. Couldn’t hold it in. Bawling. Because for all of us, I think, there was this feeling that maybe we were being given our last rites. After all this time, it was just now hitting us what we might be in for.”

He was sinking down into his bed and tried to push himself up again. I offered him some water, but he shook his head.

“Well, he eventually made his way out, and the train started to take off. But out the window, I could see this chaplain running alongside the car behind us, trying to hand wafers to the soldiers leaning out the windows. I mean, we were picking up steam, and he was keeping up. I could see his mouth moving. He ran and ran, and finally he just gave out. I watched him disappear. But we understood, finally. We understood what this was about. And all we could do was wait.”

My father shook his head, then tried to smile. He closed his eyes, but I understood that he was not asleep.

After helping him to the bathroom, I suggested we get some sleep before the nurses came in to draw more blood. I turned out the light, and then his ragged breathing filled the room. There was a thin blanket on a rickety reclining chair, and I tried to find some pocket of comfort, but it was like trying to sleep on a bicycle. For a while I studied the thin ray of light spilling in from the hallway, and my eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness. Over the sounds of his fragile slumber, the chirps and mechanical exhale of the monitors filled the room. I understood what this was about. And all I could do was wait.

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