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The boy they called Heck arrived at Omaha Beach in August 1944. Soon he would be sent to the front, but for now he waited for his papers to be processed at the Third Replacement Depot. He felt lonely, nervous, bored. Men were everywhere here, unloading supplies, bringing in artillery and armor, moving off for the front, coming back bandaged or in boxes, or, like Heck, waiting. The scene had a hivelike quality, vehicles and men streaming through this portal into and out of the interior of France. Amid all the activity, with everything in transition, it was easy to feel alone. Men were sent forward every day; every day new men arrived. While he awaited orders Heck had few demands on his time. He wandered the crowded, churned sand of the beach, watched the ships slowly come and go, watched the formations of Allied planes pass overhead, their multitudinous drone burrowing into his bones, their glinting wings and bodies like the crosses of cemeteries. Around him Heck saw men who had lost as much as a hand or an eye who smiled at the prospect of going home. He saw the drivers of the army's ubiquitous two-and-a-half ton trucks poring over their maps with the intensity of generals preparing for battle, and a GI told him that when getting off one of these deuce-and-a-half trucks an infantryman could calculate precisely how much danger he was in by watching how fast the driver turned around and got out of there. The landscape along and just beyond the beach had been reduced to a shambles of destruction—many locals had been living for a couple of months in tents set up inside houses without walls or ceilings while others patched their war-wounded homes with scavenged wood and bits of cloth. They stood sullenly in lines waiting for the soldiers to distribute food to them, and they looked at Heck without pleasure or greeting. It appeared they had had enough of armed combatants of any sort. Sometimes one could purchase from them a kind of hard cider with an under flavor like spoiled milk. Heck could not wait to be sent forward and he dreaded being sent forward: the two emotions alternated and on occasion commingled into a single piercing physical ache. He tried to listen only to his ennui and to have no other feeling.
At his first meal in the mess tent the men had been discussing a replacement who had shot himself in the foot. A large group of GIs were loud and indignant, and they hooted when one of them mocked in a simpering tone the wounded man's woeful tale of a weapon that had discharged while he was cleaning it. The comment of a sergeant, shaking his head over the mess that the replacement had made of his foot, was repeated: "You at least could have taken off your boot and sock first." However, Heck also heard four or five soldiers asking each other, softly: What were the chances that this man would have to go before a court-martial? Would his foot heal up? Would he be treated differently in the hospitals? If he got prison time, how much? Through the discussion ran an implication that whatever the wounded man's fate might be, it would likely be better than ending dead at the bottom of a muddy hole in an anonymous field in northern France. Heck listened and tried to give no sign of listening.
When he had been drafted Heck was already strong from summers of farm labor. He had always been tall. By nature he knew how to accept orders, even exasperating or obviously unnecessary orders, and he knew how to work uncomplainingly at tedious and exhausting tasks. He could shoot a gun. He felt a personal belief in the value of work and discipline. Watching some of the men struggle in training he had experienced a mild contempt. While others complained and swore bitterly, it all seemed to him simple, empty, dull. At the same time, however, he felt uncertain of himself. He knew that the training was just playacting, and the thought of a real battle created a fear in him—a fear he tried to avoid by directing his attention to the details of his tasks.
He felt self-conscious about his voice, which contained a rural Iowa accent. Most of the other GIs seemed far more sophisticated and worldly than himself, even if they hadn't fired a gun before. Heck tended to speak softly. He was balding already, and although he was just eighteen many of the other GIs assumed he was older than themselves. He listened to the conversations around him and watched the card games but rarely participated. But he did what he could to help, pointing out an open button on his neighbor's shirt prior to inspection, helping another who couldn't get the pieces of his M-1 together again after a cleaning. The other men didn't seem to know quite what to make of him, and accepted his help with uncertain smiles. They called him Heck because he never cussed. He knew he seemed an odd character, with his quiet and his air of indifference, but he felt he didn't know how to be otherwise. Sometimes he envied the men who talked and joked together so easily. But there were also times, numerous enough, when he scorned the easy and false companionships he saw among the men around him. Solitude seemed to him to be his natural condition.
When he had completed training he was given a short leave and he went home. He arrived alone at the familiar little house and waited the rest of the day for his father to come home from work. In the window the sky deepened to black. When his father finally came in, they embraced, and Heck felt uncomfortably large and strong. His father seemed pale and exhausted. He asked Heck why he had not turned on the lights, and Heck shrugged.
His father and a partner wrote and published the county newspaper. For as long as he could remember, Heck and his father had woken early every morning and eaten breakfast together. Then his father went to the newspaper office and most often he did not return again until eight or nine in the evening, or later. He kept books and magazines piled in stacks and heaps like small hills around the house. Heck had explored all of them. He was an only child. During the first dozen years of his life they had moved every year or two in search of work, around the Midwest and the Plains States, disrupting Heck's friendships each time; he had learned to do without.
His father had a small round potbelly, but otherwise was pale, thin, and rather short, so Heck's size seemed to have come from his mother. She had been a woman of great power in the shoulders and arms, taller than her husband by several inches, with a thick face and wide hips. She was moody. When her mood was good, she would joke and laugh with great energy, and whatever small thing was at hand she would toss over and over again into the air. When her mood was poor she said little, her expression turned dour, and her movements became economical. Heck always sought to keep her mood up. Even when he had grown as tall as she was, she never ceased to address him as though he were still very small. "Baby" was what she called him, fondly, and in her good moods she would narrate whatever she was doing as though he were in a swaddled bundle at her breast. "Now we're going to heat some water, Baby. And now while the water is heating we'll clean some space on the counter—" And Heck, sitting at the kitchen table with a magazine, felt reassured listening to her.
When he was fourteen, his mother died, very suddenly, of a cancer. It happened in the springtime, and Heck's father soon returned to his work. He hired a woman to clean on weekends, and he sometimes came home even later in the evenings with the smell of whiskey on him, but his established routines were otherwise unaffected. Heck, however, abruptly stopped reading the books and magazines and newspapers around the house that he had pored over in the past. The meanings of the words had suddenly become strangely variable, as if they crawled on the page like ants. That summer he began to find work on the farms outside town. He engaged the labor with steady resolve, and because he worked hard he found himself accepted. He felt he fit in. He often returned home nearly as late as his father did. He was already tall, and now the work created muscles that filled out his form.
After the daily, inflexible routines of army training camp, his week at home felt like nothing but a period of empty waiting. Heck did not tell his father about his new nickname, and everything here seemed to be just as it always had been. His father still had his way of smiling that appeared apologetic, or half sad. Heck went a couple of times to the little cemetery where his mother was buried. To earn extra money he worked for several days on one of the farms. It was summer and they were happy for the help.
He felt glad when the day to depart came. His father took the time off work, and Heck rode beside him in the old Packard toward the train station in Des Moines. Heck's duffel bag could be heard rolling and sliding in the trunk. The farmland around them curved like the fabric of a vast wind-whipped flag. His father said, "This war can't go on forever."
"No. It can't," Heck said. He added, "I'll be all right." His father had been too young for the Great War. When Pearl Harbor had been bombed and America had declared war, Heck had assumed that he would miss this war in the same way. He had not grasped then that a war could go on for years and years.
The windows were open and air tumbled into the Packard, moist and thick with the smell of earth. Waves of heat distorted the line of the road. Heck looked at his father and saw he was crying. He looked away. He had seen his father cry only two or three times before and the image now made him feel both heartbroken and strangely exhilarated. He was uncertain whether he ought to cry too.
After a moment, however, he realized that he did not feel any tears in himself. Instead he felt only a nervous agitation—a vibration in his stomach distinct from and more subtle than the rattling of the Packard. He had no real desire to go to war, but if he must then he wanted to do it quickly. He did not, after all, know what else he wanted to do with his life. Still, it seemed strange he could be sent to war. In truth, he thought of himself as hardly more than a boy, and he possessed an instinctive self-awareness of his own ignorance about many things.
His father said, "Keep your hands clean. Do what they tell you; don't do anything stupid. Remember there's a difference between being brave and being stupid."
"I will." The advice seemed a sign of his father's distress; his father never gave general advice like this. His advice was rare and always specific.
"Look sharp and be sharp."
They came into town and drove between long rows of two-story brick buildings and storefronts. They parked at the train station and sat on a bench in the sun and waited. The train was late. They sat fidgeting, the duffel bag between them. Heck's father got up and paced and kicked small stones with the toe of his shoe. His tears were gone.
"Dad," Heck said, "why don't you go on home."
"Ah, no," said his father.
"You don't need to wait here with me, doing nothing."
His father glanced at his watch.
"I know you have work that needs to be done," Heck said.
"Maybe I better," said his father.
Heck stood, they shook hands, and his father got in the Packard and left. Heck was relieved. He waited for the train alone and when it came the car he sat in was empty and this made him happy.
He traveled by train to Chicago, then New Jersey, and a Liberty ship carried him from a Hudson River pier into the Atlantic. He had never seen the ocean before. It was an incredible sight, the sea, which he had read of so often, more vast and mutable than anything he had imagined. When the enormous ship heaved and moved under him he had the sensation of transition, of leaving behind not only a continent but all his past as well. He felt the life he was abandoning now to be a mystery to him, as if he were somehow disassociated from it, and it appeared very small to him and easily left behind. And yet, the open space and the immeasurable sky at sea also reminded him of home. He stood on deck and gazed, recalling intensely the brown-black fields, furrowed and moist with spring rain, things happening invisibly beneath the surface, seeds exploding in slow motion, life struggling toward open air. Open spaces seemed to him particularly ennobled, as if God hovered down closer to such places. Many of the soldiers on the ship were violently seasick, wracked with convulsions and fevers and diarrhea and retching such that they could not even crawl from their bunks to the mess for food, food that anyway would not have remained long in their stomachs. Heck was surprised he did not share their fate, but the motion of the ship did not bother him at all.
What he moved toward, however, remained a great enigma. He understood he might never return to America, that indeed he might die. These were true possibilities. He looked around and said to himself, These men don't truly understand that they might die—they don't truly believe it, in their hearts they believe It won't be me—but I understand, it is true, I could die. Understanding this made him especially quiet and still. He began smoking cigarettes. As often as possible he went up to the deck and stood at the rail to watch the sea. On a cloudless day, with horizon in all directions, it appeared they had arrived into the center of eternity. At night it would have been easy to believe that the innumerable stars themselves, not the ship, were swaying. Below him, the wave tips caught the moonlight and winked with the patterns of a complex intelligence. By day the waves carved countless, relentless, boundless sculptural forms, and the water acquired every conceivable shade from black to white and blue to green and, lit by the fires of sunset or the embers of sunrise, violet to scarlet to gold to mud to orange. Heck could gaze upon this extraordinary expanse and achieve a quietude from within which he might contemplate his approaching fate without fear. Indeed, he thought he had defeated his fear entirely, but he was wrong in this, for as soon as he was below decks, away from the hypnotic quality of the waters, the fears resurged. I should have been a sailor, he thought, and I never would have been afraid.
From the Hardcover edition.