Tuesday, March 13, 2007

I was a Private in the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944. With the 29th Infantry, Omaha Beach.

Bert was a medic and bad at poker. He had a habit of paying his debts in dope. So the night before, we played, the last game of condemned men you might say, in the barracks back at Portsmouth. I bluffed him in the last hand of this last game and told him this: Keep me high enough so I don't care if I live or I die tomorrow and we're square.

So the morning, in that infernal landing craft. We was bobbing up and down in the spray, doughboys moaning to the left of me and to the right, all pukin' and prayin' to Jesus.

I was high as a kite. Earlier, Bert stuck me with a syringe of morphine in the soft, pristine flesh of the web of my right big toe. I knew the only anguish I'd have to face, ever, from here on out, was the stab of that thick, cold needle into me. That awful, awful momentary incongruity – and then – oh. Oh, oh, oh.

"Give it all to me, you cheap, lousy-card-playing cunt," I groaned.

Bert grunted and didn't withdraw until every last gummy drop was plugged into my vein.

A couple times I junk-puked over the lip of the heaving bucket and everyone figured I was scared sick just like them. But in reality I was happy, happier than a man could ever be.

I gazed above us at the baleful, yawning sky, still half-merged by dawn with land and sea. It was extremely beautiful and fabulously moving and as my comrades muttered and cursed and shivered I considered: June 6th, 1944. June. 6th. Such a sweet melody of a date. I felt honestly that no circumstance could possibly better embody the serenity and glory of this day and date and place, no combination of sights and sounds and smells, than what I saw above and beside me and before me with the gray and ocean green and froth of surf and frightened seasick boys and up ahead the gray band of the Old World shore.

I thanked Christ and my mother and His besides that I was high.

There was a bit of commotion that I had to respond to in my reverie and I deduced that we were running aground. The craft opened and belched us at the beach and I was up to my balls in cold, cold water – and OK, this is OK – I waded – do I have my rifle? – whistles everywhere. Whistle, whistle – ahead of me men were falling and at first I didn't in my ecstasy quite perceive why. But they'd been pierced by bullets. Evidently – I didn't see but – that guy – might have been Davy – he got turned around and I saw his jaw fall apart in a curious mash of bloody sinew. Mostly guys flopped backwards into the surf as though on cue. (Did they know just what to do?) I waded forward, tranquil. I imagined if I took a whistling bullet in the brain it might somehow make me higher in the moment that I died. Surely it'd coalesce all my pleasure into a sulfurous bead of – wow, wow! A bullet grazed my right hand; my blood sprayed in the water, the water rose and fell and stirred and eddied, troubled. I trudged forward, I saw others fall before me, some stayed up, I walked some more and then the water went away and I was stepping in the sand and then it came back 'round my ankles and I remembered waves, tides, swimming on the beach on Martha's Vineyard as a kid, running down the beach to tease the foaming edge of waves, of this enormous, hungry sea that wants to take me, then running back to safety once again.

I felt heavier now that I was out of the water. Soaked through and through. I had no idea where I was or who was in charge. My CO was supposed to be Corporal Popovic and I'd last seen him rollin' a cigarette in the boat, I don't know. Some guys waved at me from behind a dune. All hell was breaking loose and I do mean hell. There was blood and gore and mayhem, arms and legs and cries of grief, mortar, grenade, all in a smoky, salty mist and I ran and hunkered down beside these men I don't know I'd ever seen before.

I was in that part of the high you're very relaxed, you're not too high no more and you know you'll come down sometime, but not just yet and that's just fine.

There was some discussion what to do with the German gun blaring down on us from up above. I had an idea. I looked at the guys. All dirty-faced and worried.

"Cover me and follow when you – who's in charge?" I said.

They shook their heads, dumbfounded.

"Follow me when you can, boys," I said.

I stepped up from behind the sand and stood right up and I can tell you I never once felt freer. I felt some sandy grass below my feet – oh God, hardy tufts of seashore grass – and I loved this grass, and I loved the field off in the distance. There was a field, there seemed to be a stream. Certainly there was a road. I ran. I pointed my rifle into the dark slit from where the machine-gun turret was spinning and shooting, choking on its ammo belt, and I shot, and shot, and shot, and I saw the smoke and the trees and, far away, a road behind a row of trees, and behind the road another field and a wood and by the wood I spied a house and I wondered who might live there and if – a bullet tore through my shoulder and I felt a good, hot burn, a terrible, good burn through the muscle of my shoulder and I could no longer hold my gun, I couldn't do it, I absolutely could not hold and lift and shoot my gun no more so there it went, bouncing soundlessly upon the sandy grass and then I – I – I felt a huge, huge feeling in my face and eye and in my head – do you understand? A huge feeling - and I fell backward, absolutely conceding to the attraction of the earth.