Wednesday, May 15, 2013
I slipped in the door, out of the rain, and into a gloom more pervasive than the darkness outside. A layer of blue smoke hung from the low ceiling. A T.V. over the bar that no one was watching was showing a prize fight. Men were hunkered down over the bar, as if trying to keep it from moving. I saw one woman in a booth, old but trying to look young, talking to a man who was staring into his drink. But the place was far from crowded and there were plenty of seats at the bar.
I shuffled slowly to the bar, finding an empty vinyl-covered stool, and sat down and looked for the bartender, pushing my hat back on my head. There was a man next to me in a grey overcoat, the collar pulled up around His neck. I glanced at him as he held a drink in both his hands and dismissed him just as quickly.
"What'll be, mac?" the bartender finally asked looking at me with small eyes in a pudgy face. The cauliflower ear made me assume he used to be a boxer.
"Rye, on the rocks," I said, sliding a buck across the wood of the bar. He took it and with a practiced move brought back both my change and my drink.
I took a sip and let the alcohol warm me as it burned down my throat.
I was on my third sip, starting to feel the warmth spread to my extremities, when the man next to me said something.
Almost automatically I said, "Pardon?"
The man turned at looked at me with strong grey eyes. He was older than me and in his eyes I saw a depth of pain and sorrow. He looked at me for a long moment, as if debating if I was worthy of his consideration.
"I was committing suicide," he said again, so low I could barely hear him.
I was about to brush him off when I noticed the flash of sky blue and white stars under his coat. Since the war everyone in the country recognizes the ribbon of a Medal of Honor.
"I'm sorry?" I asked, not knowing what else to say.
He followed my eyes and knew I'd seen the ribbon. I didn't know why he was wearing his medal.
"Ceremony today at city hall, honoring vets," he said to my unspoken question. "V-E Day." I felt foolish not knowing that. It hadn't been that long since the war.
I nodded and looked at him. "You said something about suicide?" I'm not sure why I asked. Something in his eyes held me transfixed.
"Yes," he said simply. "They were all down."
"My squad. Everyone of them but me was hit. Some were dead already."
He looked away from me then, and I knew he was seeing not the bar, not cigarette smoke, but the war.
"We were supposed to clear out this section of this town in France. Clear out all the Germans. We came to the bottom of a hill and the Nazis were dug in up the hillside looking down on us. I ordered my squad to deploy along a wall as I assessed the tactical situation. As they were moving a mortar struck and took out my fire team . . . the whole team."
His voice cracked at that. Men had died under his command.
"The maneuver team was stunned and didn't move for what seemed ages but must have been just moments. But it was long enough, the Germans shot every one of them."
I could see the pain in his eyes then. He looked away for a moment as if to hide it. I just waiting, my drink suddenly unimportant to me now.
"I didn't want to live," he said. "So I charged up the hill with my tommy gun, attacking the German positions. I went through three magazines and was shot twice, but I took out all the Germans."
He paused, looked at me again.
"They said I saved the lives of my squad members who were wounded. They said I was brave." He scoffed. "I was trying to die."