December 23, 1941
His mother had been right, it was bleak in Southern Ohio. There was an eerie mist hovering over the land, a fuzzy band of fog like a shimmering boa hugging the neck of the earth. As far as the eye could reach, dense bare trees, their feet cloaked in the mist, seemed lonely and unsupported, their jagged and raw heads, unprotected, piercing the top of the mist. The silver conditions of the morning seemed to mirror a shift that was occurring in Bob's soul, an aloneness he was coming to know all too well, clear colors and details formerly sharp and contrasting, fading to gray and merging, transforming everything, often to unrecognizable states, a wary feeling of exposure to an ineradicably new life, where, not only his surroundings, but he was becoming unfamiliar to himself.
It had been difficult for him to articulate the specifics of the issues that were needling him, and part of the problem was directly tied to the impossibility of finding that voice in the environment where he was being trained to be a killing machine. Although in the beginning he had spoken with such bravado about being ready to go to any lengths to protect his country and family, as well as Dot, the girl he loved, as the reality of his being involved in the actual fighting approached, methods of killing and maiming and destroying that nobody on the outside of it could possibly anticipate or comprehend, his sense of purpose was becoming blurred, like that foggy landscape.
Bob had naively played with the idea that he had a kind of affinity with the ways and means of war, for as a backcountry boy he was familiar with the natural cycles of birth and death of the animals on the farm, surrounding forests and countryside. He had euthanized sick animals, shot hogs in the head in preparation for slaughter, and he knew guns, the feel of them in his hands,their kick against his shoulder, the real damage they did to animate and inanimate objects alike. Guns had long been a hobby for him, actually. In his creative mind, he had even begun to design guns. As a matter of fact, in his spare time at the training camp in Ft. Knox, Kentucky where he was stationed, he had made some rudimentary sketches of a canny little gun he planned to someday fashion out of a Zippo cigarette lighter.
Hunting had been nearly a daily activity for him since his adolescence, and he was learning that his experience in that regard gave him a decided advantage over many of the other boys at Ft. Knox, town and city boys whose experience with guns extended no further than toy guns, or perhaps B. B. guns, boys who had never held real guns in their hands, or tracked down living prey in their sights, and once positioned in the crosshairs, squeezing the trigger, and killing that prey. But that nagging voice inside of him was urging him to pay attention to the fact that killing an animal was a whole other matter than bringing a human being to its death. Despite the fact of his believing in the necessity of the war, for after all Japan had attacked the U. S., and Germany had aggressed against his country as well, his being away from Ft. Knox for only a few hours now had helped him to see that he was wrestling with that moral dilemma, the first and most serious moral dilemma of his life.
His was a tender society that believed in goodwill toward all people. He had been taught that "Thou Shalt Not Kill" his fellow man and it constituted a basic tenet of his very soul. How am I going to kill another human being? he worred as he sauntered in his usual loping fashion toward the farmhouse. He decided he would try to find time to talk to his favorite preacher, Harley Ward about it before he returned to camp. Perhaps the man of God could help to lift the mantle of confusion weighing so heavily on Bob's soul.
Barely glowing from the moisture-streaked window closest to the cook stove in the kitchen of the farmhouse, was a sole low light. In the thick mist, a plume of white smoke billowed delicately, charging the air with the scent of wood smoke, a scent of home, and sparks in the smoke twinkled like stardust shooting from the chimney at the top of the peaked roof. As he neared the back of the farmhouse, he took note of its slick moisture-sodden clapboards. It was a house weeping from the melting icicles along its eves, weeping like those damp and lonely trees, weeping like the boggy fields, as if in an act of complicity, they collectively wept, as if the whole of nature and his home grieved an inapprehensible and ill-omened fortune laying in wait for him, his family, his girl, his country, laying in wait like the hidden land mines he would encounter on the beaches of Southern, Italy in the not too distant future. Shuddering like a threatened animal in the few minutes that passed, he worked at shaking off his paranoia as he entered the perpetually unlocked back door that opened to the kitchen.
At the cook stove, her back to him, his mother stood in the arc of light from the kerosene lamp, her body noticeably weary as she bent to her duties of stoking her cook stove with a poker. At the sound of his footfalls that she knew so well, but dared not believe were real, and visibly shaking with fear that they would prove to be products of her imagination, she turned to him. Her empty hand flew to her mouth to stifle her cry, and tears spilled from her eyes.
The changes in his mother in just a few weeks took his breath away. It was as if the changes in him were reflected in her, as if by some means of osmosis beyond the natural connection between parent and child, his experiences and fears and bewilderments also were hers, only exaggerated and accelerated. She seemed already to have endured what he was facing; she seemed to have passed through, and had been permanently altered by, the ravages of war: the superhuman demands on one's body and heart and mind and conscience; the depleted stores of psychological reserves; the lifetime of recurring night terrors. In her rote movements as she had bent to stoke her stove, in her turning to him, and in her covering of her quivering mouth, a rigid choking anxiety afflicted her.
He lowered his duffel bag to the linoleum-clad floor while concurrently she dropped her poker with a crash. That emptying of their hands was the prelude to the opening of their arms. As she swayed weakly in his embrace, Bob's dilemma was erased from his mind. In that moment, his conscience split into two expedient parts, and in a reversal of roles, he became her personal protector. He knew then that to keep him mother safe, he would kill their enemies, and without hesitation, if not with relish, at least with the automatic precision of the professional soldier he was learning to be, and as grievous as they might be, he would live with whatever consequences his choice quickened in him.