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| Category: || Biographical Non-Fiction |
Posted:|| May 8, 2020 Views: 75|
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.
A true story of discovery and redemption
by Brad Bennett
John studied the surrounding fields of the French countryside. It appeared safe enough, off in the distance; he could see a wooded area, it seemed too far away for a sniper, he reasoned.
The dirt roadway ahead was rough, the group of men seated in the back of the troop carrier, were bounced up and down like toy dolls. The vehicle's wooden bench was hard on John's ass. But for the group of seven captured German soldiers crammed in with him, it was certainly a lot harder. They could barely move—packed together with their hands tightly bound.
John reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He lit it, took a deep breath, and slowly exhaled—it tasted good. He took another; he noticed the young soldier next to him was watching.
"Bitte?" the young German asked, holding his tied hands up to his mouth.
John smiled, "Sure." He placed the cigarette in the soldier's clasped hands.
The man took a deep drag, savoring the smoke. "Danke," he replied, smiling, he handed the cigarette back.
John nodded. "Danke."
Suddenly came a far off roaring noise—getting louder. John stood up and looked down the roadway, a yellow nosed fighter plane was closing straight for them! He pounded violently on the top of the cab.
"MESSERSCHMITT! Stop the truck! Get out! Get out'!"
The driver slammed on the brakes and swerved to the roadside.
"Raus, Raus!" John yelled to the prisoners. The men quickly jumped—more accurately fell, out the back of the truck.
The aircraft was almost upon them, its engine screaming. John grabbed those that were stumbling and helped them to the safety of the ditch. The fighter's twin cannons opened up with a deafening staccato roar of bullets, stitching down the roadway until they hit the truck, ripping it to pieces.
The fighter disappeared in the distance. Everyone stayed hidden—afraid the menace might be back. After ten minutes or so, the driver, and the lieutenant riding with him, popped back up. The officer quickly motioned for John to regroup the prisoners. The Germans were scattered up and down the embankment, their hands were bound, but they could walk to the truck. Suddenly one of them jumped up from the ditch and took off running for the far off woods.
"HALT!" John yelled, running to the top of the trench. Then suddenly, the other prisoners behind him jumped up and began sprinting across the field.
"SHOOT THEM, Corporal," screamed the officer. "Don't let them get away!"
John raised his rifle, but he hesitated,"I can't shoot tied prisoners." He yelled back'"
The lieutenant was furious. "God damn it. SHOOT THEM! That's an order!"
The officer yanked out his pistol and began firing, but the small weapon was no good for the distant moving targets.
John tucked his M1 Garand under his chin, took aim, and fired. The farthest man dropped.
He aimed at the next man. "HALT! HALT!" He yelled out. But the runners kept going.
He fired again--the second farthest man fell. John tried wounding the nearest man—hitting his shoulder; the runner faltered, then ran on. He quickly loaded another ammo clip--firing, over and over again, until all the runners were down.
The lieutenant rushed forward. "There's one in the woods," he yelled, pointing to the trees.
John took off running across the field. The wounded German disappeared into the forest, but his trail of blood was a giveaway. John quickly tracked him through the foliage and located the man lying on his back, his chest gurgling with a deep rasp. He had been shot through the lungs. The soldier raised his hand; he was horribly wounded.
"Kill mich!" He pleaded in partial English.
John raised his rifle. The two men standing back at the truck heard the rifle crack. They winced; the air was filled with the smell of death.
On his way back to the bullet-ridden vehicle, John recognized the young prisoner he'd given his smoke too. He was shot in his back but still alive. John knelt to the man and propped his head up, but the soldiers breathing soon stopped, and he died.
John returned to the road side and sat. He laid his rifle down, and wept.
By late 1944 the war in Europe began drawing to an end. VE day was nearing, and victory in Japan was soon becoming a reality. The radio was broadcasting cheering crowds, welcoming the first group of returning troops. The newspapers showed joyous families meeting their sons in uniform. It was a time of returning, reuniting, and rebuilding lives. But there still hadn't been any letters from John to his mother, Marie, or any word from the Army about John's location. She had to sit out the ending of the war waiting—worried sick.
Finally, early in 1945, Marie, at last, received notice of John's status and whereabouts. But the news she received wasn't exactly reassuring. John Westley Synder was in the Walter Reed Veterans Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. They informed her he wasn't physically wounded. Still, he was there for observation, which suggested John could be suffering from traumatic stress. However, the Army reassured Marie that John was recovering nicely.
This story of John's war experience, I didn't learn until I was in my fiftie's. I was long out of my own short stint in the military, and into my career, solid in my life. But soon events changed for me and set me on a new path. First came a devastating divorce, which was my own doing, and then I found myself lost, with no direction, like when I was a kid when I knew John, the man in the story.
John's war history came from my cousin Billy, who by chance I met in my quest to discover my past. Billys dad was Johns brother, and it was he who told Billy the story, and now years later, Billy passed on John's story on to me. Both brothers had passed away, and it was no longer necessary to keep it a secret. But if I had known about this story earlier in my life, it may have helped me. It might have taken away the deep, profound hatred I had for this man.
My mother, Janine, had met John shortly after he returned from the war in 1946. She was hitchhiking her way to Monmouth, Oregon, from nearby McMinnville. She had heard there was a job there for a waitress. She had no car, so she walked. John saw her and immediately stopped, and it was a no brainer—pretty young girl, good-looking young vet, they immediately hit it off. It wasn't long before they married. But there was a bit of a snag. Janine was recently divorced, with a four-year-old male child. She had left the boy with her ex-husband's parents on their farm. Now she wanted to take the boy and leave him on her new mother-in-law's farm. That boy would be me. They called me Sonny.
So I began the rest of my childhood years on another farm, with mostly the widowed grandmother raising me. She treated me well, but she had much to do managing a farm on her own, giving me free rein to roam and do what I wanted. I was an undisciplined kid, a bit shy, anti-social.
By the early 1950s, my mother had more children with John, and she would often leave my younger half-siblings on the farm. I was in school then, so I only saw them part of the day. John worked in the woods as a tree faller. But when he was between jobs, he and Janine had time together. They would come to visit, drink, gossip, laugh aggressively and party. John drank a lot but never seemed to show any drunkenness. He smoked continuously; Janine drank modestly, and she hated smoking—setting the stage for many conflicts.
As time went on, I was beginning to become a target. My bull's eye was easy to hit, I felt inferior in this environment. John's harassment would begin whenever he found me alone. His attitude towards me seemed to have no justification, he would even threaten me. I kept my distance whenever he was around.
Of course, if he showed up a bit red-faced, reeking of beer, he would be worse. Once, he found me playing near the house. He came over and started a verbal assault, railing at me for being weak, worthless. He threatened me, said he'd take me out and dump me on the side of the road, like many a stray dog that ventured on the farm. That brought up another issue.
Growing up on a fully functioning farm teaches a child never to get too attached to animals. They are to be harvested, and a farm kid may have to help with the slaughter. But a dog should be exempt, providing a different need, separate from killing—a way to find some compassion in the continual taking of life.
Whenever I took a liking to a dog, John might take it into the woods and shoot it. After a while, I learned not to start liking any animal. But strangely, John's killing of a stray dog was not a personal message. He would even come back and apologize, saying that stray dogs on a farm were bad for the stock. John had dogs of his own, but they were pure-bred hunting dogs, not for play.
John's mistreatment could be scary—he was a big man, a lumberjack, brute strong from carrying a heavy chainsaw in the woods. But I was never afraid he would physically hurt me. It was always verbal. I never saw John be violent with me or anyone else.
Then one day, he did something unimaginable.
John loved hunting. He was a crack shot and had hunted the forests up and down the Oregon coast since he was a kid. His favorite hunting grounds were for pheasants in the woodland fencerows surrounding the farm property. So the day he gave me a 16-gauge shotgun was a shock. I remember he drove up to the yard, opened the car's trunk, and motioned for me to come over. He pulled out the shotgun and handed it to me. "It's yours," he said. "I want you to have it."
I had only played with my BB gun until then, fighting pretended battles over in the barn or out in the fields. I certainly wasn't allowed to even go near a gun. So this was a leap. But why? Why now?
Maybe he realized I was growing up, I had no father, only him. Perhaps he judged I was ready, he was going to train me to be like him.
That next weekend was Sunday, and he was off from his job working in the woods. That would be the day I went hunting with my stepfather. We started through the woodland across from the house. We were on a little trail I knew well; it was where I often played. But now I was a real hunter with a real gun, not a boy with a toy. And even better, I was following him like I was his son.
Then came a branch blocking part of the trail. The limb was in John's way, so he pushed it aside, but in the corner of his eye, he caught sight of me with the shotgun. The barrel moved across his vision. He whirled and swatted the gun back.
"Dammit, Sonny!" he snapped at me. "Don't EVER point a gun at a man!"
I pulled back in fear. "I'm sorry, I forgot."
"You hold that gun straight up, you hear me?"
John's voice was stern. His sudden change was frightening.
"Do you know what it's like to shoot a man?" He went on. "You pay attention."
As we continued, I suddenly realized the terrible responsibility I had been charged. Before I had carried the gun happily, now it had become an awful burden. I tried to think of nothing else but the position of the barrel.
Soon we reached the end of the woods. Here, the trail led down into a little ravine, then back up to an old wire fence that skirted the field beyond. I followed him down, picking my footing carefully. I had come through here many times on my own but never carrying a heavy shotgun. John bounded the fence effortlessly. He stood studying the open field. I struggled with the wire, trying to hold the gun steady. My hand slipped off the stock. The barrel came down and pointed directly at John. At that precise moment, he turned and saw the barrel.
"YOU GODDAM STUPID ASS!" he shouted.
The words exploded as if shot from a cannon, stunning me, he rushed forward and snatched the shotgun from my grasp. I stood trembling in silence. His words rang through the nearby forest as if the trees were listening. They stood by like a silent crowd of gathered witnesses to my humiliation.
"DAMN, your stupid ass!" He shouted again.
He yanked open the chamber of the gun, ejecting the shell to the ground.
"SEE THAT!" he railed, pointing at the shell. "That can take a man's head off. You don't listen, do you? Well, you won't last long as a hunter."
John's tirade was relentless. I stood there, my head down.
"I knew a kid in the army who was thick-headed like you." He kept on. "He got blown to bits the first day we hit the beach!"
John picked up the shell and crammed it back into the breach. He shouldered the shotgun, grabbed me, and shoved me forward.
"Get moving, goddamn you. I'll carry the gun."
My hands were shaking. I wouldn't cry, I told myself. I wouldn't let him see me cry. Suddenly a shrieking pheasant exploded from the fencerow. John brought the gun smoothly to his shoulder, traced the bird's flight, and fired. The bird fell like a stone.
'"Go get it!" he barked.
I hurried over to the dying pheasant, the air filled with the smell of gunpowder. The bird flopped about the yellow grain stubble, speckling it crimson red.
"Pick it up," John shouted.
I grabbed the bird's throbbing legs and hurried back, holding it away from my body as I ran. The bird was stubbornly clinging to life, flopping and quivering.
"Wring its neck!" He snapped. I hesitated, staring helplessly at the bird.
"You're a sissy, aren't you?"
He grabbed the pheasant and twirled it around by its head. The bird squawked and died.
We began walking across the field with me trailing behind him, carrying the dead pheasant. It was appropriate I carried the bird; we were comrades in disgrace. Only the bird would not know any disfavor; it was dead. I, however, would have to live on with my shame.
We marched on. I stared up at John's back, his ugly words rolling over and over in my mind. Finally, I could bear no more. I dropped the bird and ran past the man. On across the field I ran.
I reached the woods and rushed headlong down the trail. I charged along the winding path, brush swatting my face. I caught my foot on a tree root and sprawled face down in the dirt, bloodying my nose. I got up and ran on.
Finally, I reached the safety of the house. I sat on the back porch to catch my breath. There was nowhere else I could go. I waited for another verbal assault upon his arrival. But when he reached the house, he went to his car instead and drove away.
The next day, when John returned to the farm, I went into the house. He came in, saw me, and said hello? It was as if nothing had happened? Was it all a dream? John went to the fridge, took out a beer, and left.
The verbal abuse from him eased back in the next few days, but I still avoided him. It was as if some antithesis had transformed him, and he was now unburdened. It was confusing, I could not reason where I had failed or succeeded.
As the years went by and I grew older, I saw less of John. He and my mother had divorced by then, and I moved in with her, and then lived on her new husband's ranch. Life was better now, and her new husband Bob, was a good man.
By 1961, I started high school, I dropped the Sonny nickname, and took my real name Brad. By graduation in 1962, I wanted to start a new life, so I decided to leave Oregon and join the US Air Force. My mother would have to drive me to the recruiting station in Portland. From there I would take the train to Texas to begin my training. As we sat in the headquarters waiting for my induction approval, an officer came out and summoned me privately. Once in the man's office, he asked me to sit, then as careful as he could, he explained what they had found out about my background.
"Brad," he began. "We have not found a record of a Brad Snyder anywhere." I sat stunned.
"Instead," he went on, "your birth certificate, reads Brad Bennett. However Robert Bennett, in his divorse statement from your mother, claimed he was not your father, that you were fathered by another man after their separation." Since we have no further record of your real father, we will have to stay with his name Bennett, as on the certificate."
Now everything was explained. In the 1940s, a bastard child was an outcast. That's why I wasn't adopted and left on an in-laws farm. I had grown up and gone all the way through high school with a false name. I came out and confronted my mother. She had nothing to say. That night I boarded the train for Texas, angry and disillusioned. I vowed never to live in Oregon again. I would only return periodically to visit.
It was early in the morning. The sun had just peeked over the eastern horizon. I was standing in the parking lot of Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. I had just got off the bus with a group of fellow recruits, and now we were about to get our first taste of boot camp by a drill instructor, or DI. He ordered us into a ragtag line and began calling out the roll call.
"Brad Bennett." The instructor barked out when he got to my name.
I stood silent.
"BRAD BENNETT!" he shouted louder.
I suddenly realized that this was me.
"HERE!" I yelled out.
He came over, "You DUMB ASS!" He yelled in my face. "Don't you know your own name?"
"No, SIR. I don't." (The rest I won't go into)
After finishing boot camp, I went before a group for my new assignment interview. I had received straight A's in art in high school—sadly, not much in anything else. But I was fortunate, the Air Force needed artists for Aircraft Maintenance Manuals, and thanks to my school art record, I qualified. I then began my training as a Technical Illustrator. This bit of luck would lead me into a future career as an artist, then later, a creative director at a major ad agency.
Another plus the Air Force had provided me was my physical training. I took up weight lifting and reached a point where I could press my weight. Somehow it was easy for me, I just kept thinking of John's taunting face spitting out those ugly words at me. I hadn't forgotten them. If I ever would meet him again, I was strong enough and just angry enough to flatten him. I had an entire childhood of anger built up inside.
In 1983, I returned to Oregon, I had come there this time to look up old friends. Also, maybe drop by the old farm. The grandmother had died, and my aunt owned it now. I had a love-hate feeling for this old place, I had mixed emotions on seeing it again.
That's when I also found out that John lived only a short distance away. The news was a bit scary. I wasn't ready for it. I had always thought about confronting John, but the reality of that was chilling. How would I react? How would he react? It might turn violent. I certainly didn't want that, but there was no room inside me to accept one word of abuse from him. But the more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to go through with it.
So I prepared myself for a showdown. I set my resolve and drove out to the one-room flat in a seedy little motel, where my aunt told me John had last lived. As I drove, I angrily worked on my greeting line. It was something like this: "Hello! Remember me? Anything you want to say now?"
I found his motel, parked, and went to his door. I stood up tall, trying to make myself look threatening. I knocked and waited. The door slowly opened.
There, standing in the doorway, was a frail, old man. When he saw me, his face lit up; he was so delighted I thought he would cry.
"Sonny!" he exclaimed. "It is so good to see you." He gave me his hand.
I had no words. Whatever I was going to say was gone.
I calmly took his hand. "Hello John," I said, meekly, "it's good to see you too."
"Come in, Sonny," he said, holding his arm to me. "Could you help me a bit?" He motioned to his walker, I helped him over to it, and he made his way to his chair.
"How have you been Sonny?" I've heard so much about you." He gestured to a printed folder on a small table. It was a promotion piece I had designed when I became an Art Director later in my career. I had sent it to my aunt, and she must have given it to him.
"I knew you would do well," he went on. "I'm so happy for you."
Everything I had expected was now turned upside down, my emotions towards him as well. I carefully began relating my life for him up to that point. He acted attentively, but it was apparent he had trouble hearing, so I shut up, and asked him to tell me what happened at his job?
"Hurt my back in the woods pretty bad." He told me. "A tree kicked back and fell the wrong way, knocked me down. The pain's bad, but I make do." I noticed the stack of plastic pill bottles near the table. "I'm on pension now, I found this motel rental with help from a local VFW group."
I thought of his son John Jr. "How bout Johnny, does he help out?"
"Nah, he and I don't get along, he came by a few times, we're not close." John tried to lean back in his chair, his face winced in pain. "I'm mostly alone. Local community volunteers come by sometimes, they bring my grocery's and medicine."
As we sat and talked, I kept asking myself, who was this gentle old fellow before me? I didn't know him?
When it finally came time for me to leave, he asked for one last request. A slat had fallen out under his bed, and it was uncomfortable for him to lie there. Would I fix it for him? I slid under the bed and adjusted the slat. I noticed other things amiss in the room. A small TV awkwardly placed, I put it near his bed. I looked around the room for more deeds to do. My lifetime of hatred has evaporated. My self-pity now became a slap in my face.
When it came time to leave, I held out my hand to him, "John," I said, "I'm so happy I had a chance to talk to you."
"You come back any time Sonny, I'd like that."
I saw his eyes start to well up, I held his hand tight. "Good bye, John." I told him. "I will try and see you again."
On my drive back, my mind reeled. Here was this poor old man, suffering and abandoned, and all I had on my mind when I came here, was revenge. Revenge for what? What a waste of emotion I had placed upon myself. This has been a self-realizing experience. I had spent my whole life hating him, but why? What had made him what he was? Why had he treated me so bad?
I believe I got that answer when my cousin related the war story five years later. It had filled in John's last chapter for me. Now I could try and reason why he reacted so viciously on that day he took me hunting? My pointing a gun barrel at him must have set off a visual of his firing at those fleeing prisoners. He was the one who sent those bullets ripping through their bodies. He was the one who pulled that trigger, and I had put him right back there.
By shifting that guilt away to a child, he could put that guilt away from himself. The alternative was something he could not deal with. Yet somehow in the end, he had blocked me out of it. He had repeated this behavior to a lesser extent throughout my life at the farm. Possibly that could explain why he acted as if his abuse never happened. Of course John wasn't a coward, he was on Normandy beach, he had medals of valor, but they meant nothing to him. Seven bodies lay in that field.
I didn't get a chance to see John again, he died soon after that. Thank god I saw him and told him goodbye.
What I do know is when I visited him on that day, it was evident he was suffering from dementia, and in some ways, that was a blessing. His condemning memories were erased. What I saw was a man freed from his past.
The irony is, my knowing his past, had freed me as well.
War writing prompt entry
Write a story where a character is in war or is about to be in war. Fiction or non-fiction.|
This is a true story based on the life of a WWII soldier with PTSD. He was my step father. He died years ago, now his story can be told.
Plato had the best quote about battle. Only the dead will see the end of war.
and 2 member cents.
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