"A terrifying, war-wept beach. A horrified young man. And a choice."
Sergeant Wright looked at his corporal. The young man was clenching his fists at his sides, looking out over the rim of the amphibious personnel carrier at the cresting waves just under the gunwale. His face was pale and doughy, his eyes wide and staring.
"Hey, take it easy, son," consoled the sergeant. "It ain't so bad, you know. Besides, you know what they say?"
"No," Corporal Taylor turned to face Wright, "What do they say, Sarge?"
"They say," he began, "That if you run fast enough when you hear a round falling, then it won't hit you. It'll just WOOOSH! right over your head, and you won't even get a scratch."
"Who says so?"
"I don't know, I just heard it said before. Somewhere." Sarge turned to look out over the ocean, too. The waves were white crested and high, swelling up then down like the heaving flanks of a whore. It made his stomach feel queasy, as if the coming battle wasn't enough to worry about. Most of the men were in the corporal's condition, Sarge included.
"I heard that saying, once," squeaked Malloy. He was only a private. He was green. Nobody listened to green privates, so the corporal ignored the comment.
"But how do you mean, run real hard? How hard do you have to run?"
Sarge continued his survey of the ocean, following the flat, gray horizon all the way around until he found the beach. It was a lonesome, worthless piece of property, that beach, but it was one that would be bought at the price of hundreds, maybe thousands of American lives. He tried not to see the sand in his mind, running with the blood of the dead and dying, though he knew it soon would be.
For the sake of his men, Wright finally said, "Real hard. You have to run really hard, like your very soul hangs in the balance. It ain't like no foot race," the Sarge turned to face the corporal, all his men. "When you hit that beach and you hear those shells flying, I don't have to tell you it ain't no foot race. The first time you see a buddy go down, half his face blown off or his legs missing, then you'll KNOW it's for real, for keeps." He paused, reaching into his breast pocket for a cigarette and a light. "You'll RUN."
Somebody called out, "Yeah, but in which direction?" Everybody laughed once, loud, hard. It was good, that laughter, it suddenly made the creaking APC seem like a party bus instead of a hearse. That laughter put death at bay.
Then Malloy asked, "Where'd you hear that story, Sarge?"
Before answering, Sergeant Wright lit his cigarette. On the third try the wind let up and he was able to build a cherry. It glowed red orange in the early morning light.
"From an old timer," he said at last. "A man I knew a long, long time ago." Only the engine of the craft and the rushing water filled the silence. Sarge exhaled, remembering. His eyes were lost and wandering.
"Yeah? Well I heard it from my great-granddaddy. He was at the second battle of Bull Run. The Civil War, you know." Malloy pushed through the crowd to stand next to the corporal and Sarge. "He said you can escape cannon balls if you run fast enough. But he said you gotta run like hell... just like hell, boy." Private Malloy fished in his own pocket for a pack of smokes, then he offered one to the corporal.
The corporal shook his head, no. He was watching the wake of their boat fade behind them on the crests of distant waves. Their support ships were far behind, now, nearly invisible. There was a smudge of blue smoke on the horizon to mark their place, but there was nothing else. Ahead, though he didn't turn, the corporal knew the beach was rising ever higher on the horizon, looming larger and larger like the stark face of death painted on a full winter moon.
Malloy lit up, bumming Sarge's lighter. After more than a dozen tries at the flint wheel, the sergeant took the lighter away from him. The private cupped his hands until the end of the tobacco was burning, then Sarge snapped his Zippo back into his breast pocket. Malloy inhaled and held the smoke.
"Well," said Sarge, "I don't know if this guy was as old as your great-granddaddy, but he was pretty damned old. He fought with the American Expeditionary Force in World War I."
"What'd he say?" questioned the private.
With a glance at the beach, the sergeant decided he had enough time left to tell his tale. So he settled back against the armored gunwale, dragging on his smoke.
"He said it don't work so well with bullets. But it works okay with the big stuff, you know, mortars, artillery, cannon," Sarge took another drag, the crimson glow of dawn reflected in his eyes. He exhaled as he spoke, "The old guy swears that once, when their trenches were under artillery attack, he heard a round falling into their position. You know the sound a falling artillery round makes, kind of a wailing sound, like those fat opera ladies singing. Well this guy, Peebles was his name, he heard that round fallin' and he just knew it was going to tear him a new asshole, know what I mean?"
Several of the men nodded. The bow of the APC crested a wave, jolting the men inside its armored belly so they swayed in unison.
"So he starts runnin' fit to beat the devil, itself. Just running, and dropping his gear as he went." Sarge smiled, embellishing, "I mean he threw his rifle down, ripped off his pack, unbuckled his web gear, and he probably even stripped off his shoes, I'll bet, running. Just running to get outta the way of that shell.
"That's when he says it happened," finished the sergeant, taking a final pull on the cigarette, then flipping it out into the water. Corporal Taylor watched the butt twist in the air, trailing a dim plume of smoke. It looked like a plane being shot down. The butt sizzled into a passing wave.
"When what happened?" prompted Taylor. He felt like the straight man in one of those old Vaudevillian comedy acts.