THE BUDDY SYSTEM

By

Lois Overton

Aka Foxhole Filly

October 29, 1944

A shell streaked across the hazy sky, exploding in a final fury; then an eerie silence pervaded the clearing.  No dying screams.  No machine gun chatter.  No whine of bullets as they clipped the air uncomfortably close by.  Even the birds soaring overhead remained mute.  Billy Nelson scanned the area, half expecting to see Krauts moving up toward the scattered remains of a log pile where he had sought cover, but praying hard that he wouldn't.  Nothing.   Not a thing moved.  A sigh of relief escaped. Maybe the Krauts were all dead...or had given up.  Fat chance of that!  

What he needed now was to see one of his squad members.  Anyone friendly.  He considered calling out, but if there were enemy soldiers out there it would attract them to his position.  He called as quietly as he dared.  “Sarge.”  No response, so he tried a bit louder.  “Sarge.  Littlejohn.”  He chewed on his lower lip as he listened for a response.  Where the heck was everybody?  “Sarge!” he shouted, ducking low in anticipation of a barrage of bullets that never came.  It was as if the world were dead.   

Billy licked his lips.  They were dry. That was the way it always was during battle.  For him anyway.   Dry lips and wet armpits.   And the shaking when the firing ended.  He willed his body to stop, but it seemed to have a life of its own.  “I shoulda taken up smoking,” he thought as he rolled over onto his back and tried to relax.  

As the sun made an appearance through the overcast, he blinked into the sky, shielding his eyes with a hand. Judging by the position, he figured it must be nigh onto noon.  Two hours since the squad had pushed its way onto that field. One hour since the German counteroffensive had begun.  Or was it only five minutes?  Time was hard to measure in the chaos.  

Billy swung his legs up under him and slowly raised his head until his eyes just cleared the top of the log.  He searched the area again for any signs of life.  Nothing.  Pulling his rifle up against his chest so it rested in the crook of his arm, he removed the canteen from his web belt and sloshed a bit of the liquid over his face, disregarding water discipline for the moment.  Gulping a long swallowful, he swished it in his mouth and spat out the taste of war; then he checked the field once again.  Seeing and hearing nothing, he ducked down and rested his back against the log, feeling totally depleted.  

A German soldier lay sprawled over the rotting remains of a fallen tree just in front of him.  Flies already buzzed around the body. Soon it would start to smell.  The smell of death on a battlefield was something Billy knew he would carry with him the rest of his life.  Dead trees, dead men, dead animals.  The whole world seemed to be dead.  But Billy Nelson was still alive.  He was a survivor...at least for the moment.      

Billy stared at the German.  Somehow he didn't look so threatening any more.  He had been somebody's brother or some German mother's son.  Now he was just one more number on a list of dead Krauts, and one less threat to an American mother's son.  

Billy didn't usually get this close to the fallen enemy.  He didn't take the time to look at the men he killed; it was easier to think of them as targets.  If you gave too much consideration to it being a human inside that uniform, you might hesitate a split second...and that could be a fatal mistake...one he didn't intend to make.  But so close up now, Nelson couldn't help noticing that the German's cheek showed barely a stubble.  The enemy seemed to be getting younger as the Allies moved toward Germany.  He remembered how young he had been in boot camp when he had stood at the sink in the barracks shaving his whiskerless face.  It was what men did, and he had so wanted to prove himself to be a man in those days.  Somehow, it didn't seem so important at that particular moment.     

Billy noticed the German's fringed cuffs and how the knees of his trousers were threadbare.  Nothing swaggering or superior about this fellow.  Things must be hard in the fatherland.  Billy looked down at his own stained, tattered field jacket and smiled. Things didn't seem to be a whole lot better for the Americans at the moment.  “A man oughta have clothes without holes, three squares a day, and a warm bed to sleep in.  He shouldn't have to  live in the dirt like an animal.  It isn't a lot to ask for, is it?” he said to the dead German.    He nudged the foot of the lifeless form with his boot.  “Stinkin' war!”

A cough from the Kraut sent Billy scrambling for his rifle and drawing a bead on the enemy.  He'd been foolish to assume the Kraut was dead. He should have checked. The German groaned softly and grabbed his shoulder where a red stain soaked his tunic. His face contorted in pain. Sensing the presence of the American, his eyes shot open and widened with alarm.  He shot a quick glance at the Schmeisser that lay between them and shifted his weight ever so slightly.  

“Don't even try it, Fritzi.” Billy cried.  “Don't do anything stupid, and you just might live to go home.”   

The German boy's eyes closed tightly, awaiting the coming bullet.   When Billy didn't fire, the German relaxed a bit against the log.  He muttered something unintelligible.  It might have been a prayer, or it might have been a curse.  Billy didn't know, but as he locked eyes with the Kraut, he saw pure hatred in them.

A trickle of sweat made its way down Billy's back and disappeared into the waistband of his trousers.  He licked the salty drops that collected on his upper lip.  “Hey, Sarge!  Someone!”  he called nervously, eyes darting quickly toward the area where he thought Saunders or the rest of the squad should be.  “I got a prisoner here!”  

Imperceptibly, the German's far hand inched down the side of his breeches where it was unseen to the American.  

Hearing no response, Billy cocked his head for an instant and called out again.  Seizing what might be his only opportunity, the German swung his arm up over his hip and fired off several rounds from a Lugar.   Billy Nelson caught the movement and slammed his body back against the log as he emptied his clip in quick response.  The German collapsed backward as bullets slammed into his head and torso, the uniform fabric exploding on his chest.

Afraid to move, Billy's heart pounded so hard that he thought it just might explode.  That he'd been fired on at such a close range without being killed was almost incomprehensible.  He examined his arms and legs.  He patted his jacket.  Nothing more than the spatters of blood which must have peppered him when the spray went out from the German's body.  He whistled softly in awe as he realized that he had come through totally unscathed.

Carelessness even for a moment was something a soldier had to guard against.  He'd seen it too often.  A guy let his attention wander for a split second and wham!  He wasn't going home.    Billy shivered at the thought of how close he'd come to buying the farm.  War was unforgiving and usually didn't give second chances; he wasn't about to make the same mistake twice.  He kicked out, nudging the Kraut's boot.  Then he kicked hard.  This time there was no doubt the German was dead.

The force of the barrage from Billy's weapon had thrown the German back against the tree, and his arm had wedged upright in the branches of the tree like a flagpole, topped by the Lugar clasped in his hand.  The toggle was up.  Empty.  It wouldn't be much use to Billy as a weapon, but he considered that it might make a terrific souvenir.  He could take it back home.  Mom wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole, but Dad would appreciate such a beauty.  He crawled to the German and stretched out over the Kraut in order to reach the Lugar.  As the tree wobbled, the German's arm disentangled from the branches, plopping heavily on the American's shoulder.  Billy lost his balance and fell forward onto the dead man, bringing him face to face with the enemy.  He looked on a face that had been reduced to yawning, bloody cavities.  Bullets had peeled the skin and blown out the top of the boy's skull, leaving portions of the German's brain all over the tree behind the body.  

Billy panted hard as he fought nausea, shivering as his stomach lurched violently.  Seized by mindless panic, he scrambled away from the bloody corpse. His rifle, its strap wrapped around his arm, banged against his shoulder as he dragged it through the dirt.  “Doc!  Sarge!  Littlejohn!  Is anybody there?  Sarge!  Somebody...please!”   Billy cried with the last bit of energy reserve as he collapsed onto the parched earth.   

A gentle rush of wind whiffed Billy's hair, sending prickles through his body.  Alerted by something he felt more than heard, he pulled up his rifle and sighted along its barrel toward the smoky mists that enveloped the woods in front of him.  Squinting into the shadows, he made out a figure moving into the clearing.  A pulse in his temple ticked off the moments as the figure casually walked to him out in the open.  

“Grady?  Grady Long?”  he stammered incredulously.   

“Hey, Buddy!”  Grady called with a wave.  

His body haloed by the sun behind him, Grady towered over Billy and offered him a hand up.  Billy grabbed him, clapping him hard on the back.  Then Billy shoved him away.  “Grady, you jerk!  You had us all scared to death.  We thought you got killed.  What the heck happened?”

Grady's lips curled slightly in the lop-sided grin that Billy remembered so well.  Well, ole buddy, seems like I got myself killed.”  

Billy punched him in the shoulder.  “Good one.”  Billy rolled his eyes.  “You kidder.”  If you got killed, you'd be dead.”

“Yeah, kinda pitiful ain't it?”  

Billy shifted his weight and wiped his mouth with a grimy palm. “Well, if you're dead, then how come I can see you?  Answer that, will ya?”  He toed the dusty grass uncomfortably.  “Grady, you kill me.”

“Not me.”  Grady pulled the rifle from Billy's hand, and the weapon clattered to the ground.

“Hey!  Whatcha doing!  I need that!”

“No you don't.”

“But...”

“Leave it, Billy,” Grady repeated seriously.  “You don't need it.”

Billy studied him a moment before breaking into a wide grin. “You kidder.  I just don't know what we're gonna do with you, Grady.  Wait till Sarge finds out. You know, you really had him down.”  Billy snorted and cleared his throat, running a finger around the inside of his collar.  For once, it wasn't a bit damp.   “Were you here for the battle?”  

“I've been around for all of 'em.  I ain't missed nuthin'.”

“Well, gee, we didn't see you.  What outfit were you assigned to?”

“I've been with this outfit the whole time.  Hey, Heinz,” Grady called out to a lanky German soldier who strode by.  Billy started to dive for his rifle, but Grady grasped the arm of his jacket and restrained him.  

“Grady, let go!  It's a Kraut!”  Billy tried to wrench his arm free, but Grady Long held it firmly.  

The German turned his head, touching the brim of his helmet with two fingers.  Then he dropped down next to a soldier sitting in a patch of tall grasses.  A moment later, Billy heard an agonized cry.  

“Some guys take it hard.”

Billy spun around.  “Take it hard?  Take what hard?”

“Dying can be easy, or it can be hard.”

Grady looked at Billy intently, locking him in his stare.  Then it was as if Billy understood. “You mean...you mean...” Billy stuttered... “that guy's...”

Grady Long nodded.  

They watched as the German pulled the sobbing boy's head against his chest.  A moment later, the German helped the boy to his feet and started back toward the mist.  “He'll be OK, Grady.  Won't you, son?” the German said as they passed.  And though he wasn't speaking English, Billy somehow understood every word he said.  

“What the...?”  Billy scratched his head.  He observed German and American soldiers exiting the woods and joining up with their fellow soldiers lying on the field.    

“Kirby, check over there.  Littlejohn, go with Kirby.”

Billy whipped around at the sound of a familiar voice behind him.  “Hey, Sarge, You aren't gonna believe who I found!”   

Saunders blew past him without so much as a nod and made his way toward the wood pile where Billy had last been seen.  Littlejohn and Kirby moved from body to body, turning them over as they went.

“Littlejohn.  You're OK.”  Billy cried.  

“Doc!”  Saunders cried out.  Littlejohn and Kirby trotted by Grady and Billy, ignoring them, and stopped next to the sergeant's squatting form.  Littlejohn knelt next to Saunders.  

Billy moved toward the small group.  “I got 'im.  He tried to ambush me.  But I got 'im.”

Grady reached out to take Billy's arm. “Wait a minute, Nelson.  There's things you don't....”  The boy tried to shake him off.    

Littlejohn reached down and scooped up something from the ground.  It was a body, its arms swinging freely as he shifted the weight.  Its head rested against the big man's chest.  Kirby and Saunders fell in line behind Littlejohn, their faces grim.  

Billy stepped over to the small procession, but they ignored him and passed by. “Wait up a minute.“  He turned back toward Grady in confusion.  “That's an American uniform.  I don't remember anyone else  there with me.  Where'd this guy been hiding that I hadn't even seen him?”  He spun back around.  “Littlejohn,” he repeated, “Who got it?”   

As if in answer, Littlejohn stumbled and the body's head lolled back, eyes staring unblinking into the sun. It was a face that looked enough like Billy to be his twin.  A small, round hole had pierced the forehead just above the nose ridge.  A rivulet of dark blood streamed from the opening, and flecks of red dotted the pale face like freckles.  

Billy sucked in his breath and put a hand to his own forehead.  He felt small bits of hard bone and soft tissue inside a moist hole.  He fell back, stumbling over his own feet, and landed heavily on the ground.  He tried to scrabble away, but his arms and legs didn't want to work.  His breath caught in his throat.  

Grady squatted beside Billy and placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Easy boy.  I'm here to help you.  You don't have to go it alone.”  

Billy gasped for air.  “I can't breathe.  I can't breathe!”

“Yeah, that not breathin' things hard to get used to.  It'll pass.  You just wasn't ready.”

Tears welled up in Billy's eyes.  “That was...that was...I'm...?”

“Dead.  Sorry pal, sometimes it's just easier to go ahead and say it right out.   

Billy grabbed Grady Long's jacket lapels.  “I can't be dead.  I survived. Look at me.  I'm alive!”  

“No, son, you ain't.”  Grady pulled the boy into his chest.  “I know it's hard. But the truth usually is.”

Billy looked up at Grady.  “But I don't feel dead.”

“Well, what's it supposed to feel like?  It's always the living that's trying to say how it feels.  You ever hear one of us dead people sayin'?  It just don't happen that way.  Now, c'mon.  We gotta be goin'.”  

“To heaven?  Er...I'm goin' there aren't I?  I mean I just assumed....”

Grady nodded.  

“What's it like?”

“Hard to describe, but it's a good place to be. Warm and safe.  You're gonna like it a lot.  But you won't be spendin' much time there for a while.  First you have a job to do.  Soldiers 'll be needin' you.  Gonna be a long war.”

A German sergeant walked by clasping the arm of the boy Billy had just killed.   The boy smiled at Billy, and the sergeant called Grady by name.   

“Hey, he smiled at me.  That's the kid I shot...and he smiled at me.  He's not even mad.  And those Krauts...they all know you!”

“Eh, eternity's too short to waste it being mad all the time.  Them Germans, they're just people.  Or they was just people. Everyone gets along where we're goin'.  Funny how you gotta die to find out how you shoulda lived.  You ready to go?  We don't have all day.  I got a lot to talk to you about.”  

Billy rubbed his forehead, finding not a hint of the deep bullet hole that had surprised him moments before.  His skin was smooth and unblemished.  “Wait minute...wha...what...how....?”

Grady hauled himself off the ground and offered Billy a hand up.  “You don't think we go around for eternity bleedin' all over the pearly gates.  Hey, you want everybody lookin' at your face all pretty don'tcha?  It's one of the benefits. ”

Billy scratched his head.  “I never thought about it.”

Across the field, Littlejohn deposited Billy Nelson's body next to several others.  Billy couldn't hear what the squad said, but as he watched Sgt. Saunders pat the private's back, he knew what his friend was going through.  He turned to Grady Long.  “So,” he tipped his head toward the squad, “any of these guys joining us?”

“Yeah.  Some sooner'n others.  Like I said, the war's got a long way to go.  We ain't even to the Bulge yet.”

“The bulge?” Billy scratched his head.  

“Don't worry. You'll find out everything you need to know real fast.”

“Who...when?”

“Sorry.  I'm at the bottom of the pecking order. They don't tell me nothin'.  It's all on a need to know basis.  Look, I just go when and where they send me.  I can tell you...well, I heard a rumor that one of the guys is gonna get a long, long life.  An exceptionally good life.”

Billy stared hard at his friends.  Which of these men would be alive when peace came?  Grady had said that one of them was going to have a long, happy life...something he himself would never know now.  

“Grady, you gotta tell me.  What about Sarge?  Or Caje ?   Kirby?  Will Kirby be OK?   What about Littlejohn and Doc?  Hanley?  I gotta know.”

Grady shook his head.  “It don't matter.  The future is what it is.  And we'll be here when they need us, regardless of when.  Soldiers take care of each other that way.”  He put a hand on Billy's shoulder.  “All in all, it's a pretty good job.  But now it's time to leave.  You have indoctrination and then into the field.  No time to waste.”  

The two soldiers joined the other pairs who were headed off across the field.  Nearing the wall of mist, Billy started to turn back toward the place where the squad still lingered, but Grady's firm hand stopped him.  “Best not to look back.  Walk away and leave it.”  

Billy nodded and licked his lips, even though they weren't the slightest bit dry.  Then he and Grady Long stepped into the mist.    

May 24, 2006

The first rays of a new morning pierced the sky, sending the birds into a flurry of chirps and cries as the world awakened.  Inside the rambling, clapboard house the lights burned, as they had all through the long night.  In the back bedroom, an old woman sagged onto the edge of the bed and laid a worn, wrinkled hand atop the mound that was her husband.  She patted the blanket lovingly.  “Look, dear, it's Dave.  He flew in from California with Martha and the kids just to see you.”

“Hey, Grandpa,” Dave said quietly, leaning in.  “How you doing?”

A small brown head peeked around his father's leg shyly and smiled.  “Hi, PawPaw.  You wanna go play?”

The old man groaned.  He hadn't spoken a word since the last stroke.  

“I know.  I know,” she muttered. Tears collected in the corners of her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. How could she say goodbye to the man who had shared her bed every night for the last 59 years?  

The old man looked beyond her and spotted a figure in a vintage World War II uniform leaning against the doorframe.  Even without his thick glasses, he recognized the young man and tried to speak.  

“What is it, dear?  What do you want?”  The old woman looked behind her, but seeing nothing, turned back to her husband.  She squeezed his hands and leaned in close to hear his words.  

“Billy,” he tried to mouth, looking beyond her.  Then his eyes closed.

“Big what?” she asked him, her mouth close to his ear.  

“Psst.  Littlejohn,” Billy called.

The old man sat up and swung his long legs over the edge of the bed, rubbing his eyes in disbelief.  “Billy?  Billy Nelson?  What in the world!”  He lumbered over to the boy and threw his arms around him, ruffling his hair with his weatherworn hands.

Billy slapped his friend on the back.  “It's been a long time, huh?”

“I thought you were... I thought you were dead.  Maxine, you remember how I told you about Billy Nel....”  Littlejohn turned to his wife, but stopped at the sight of her head laid on the chest of the paling body, her shoulders heaving with sobs.  “Billy, what...I don't...What's going on here?”

Billy Nelson rested a hand on his friend's shoulder.  “It's OK, Littlejohn.  It's just your time.  It happens to all of us.”

“I'm...?”  Littlejohn's forehead wrinkled.

Billy nodded.  “It isn't so bad.   Really.  Just kinda hard to get used to at first.”

Littlejohn whistled.  “You can say that again.”  

“That's why I'm here. You're the last one on my list.”  

“I had no idea.”

“Neither did I when it happened to me.”  

He nodded toward his wife.  “Is she gonna be OK?”  

“She'll be fine.”  Billy checked his watch.   “Look, I know you want to hang around awhile.  But it won't do you any good. Her neither.  She's gotta get on with the job of living.”

“And me?  I gotta get on with the job of...what?  Dying?”

“Well, that's what some call it.  But what do they know?  Let's just say living...of a different kind.  Hasn't been bad so far, has it?  Do you feel one twinge of arthritis?  I mean you were pretty stove up for a long time. And when was the last time you walked since that stroke?  Look at you now.”

Littlejohn flexed his fingers and performed a deep knee bend.  “Hey,” he smiled, “I haven't done that in years.”

Billy put a hand to Littlejohn's shoulder and directed him into the living room.  

“Well, look at that.  All my family's here.  There's Max, Bob, and Jim and their wives.  And my six grandkids...and most of the great-grandkids.  See, there's little Mary asleep in her mother's arms.  We almost lost her when she was born.”

“I remember,” Billy stated matter-of-factly.    

Littlejohn stared at him.  “You remember?”

“Yeah, pal.  I've been with you through Maxine's breast cancer, and Bob's car crash.  I was here when it didn't rain for almost a whole summer, and the one where the farm flooded.  I've been through all the painful things right alongside you.”

“I never knew.”

“Yeah, no one ever does. You know, Littlejohn, when I was in France, I figured I'd go home, get married, and raise a bunch of little Nelsons.  Didn't work out that way.  But you...you had it all.  The family...the long life....was it all you wanted it to be?  Were you happy?”

“Yeah, Billy.  I was happy.”  He looked back toward the bedroom door.  “Real happy.”

“Billy,” Littlejohn said, “I wish I could tell them not to grieve for me.  I wish I could tell them I'm OK and that they're going to be all right too.  

Dave entered the living room and conversation stopped.  “He's gone,” he said simply.  Several women wept quietly, while several men went back into the bedroom at the rear of the house they'd grown up in.  

“Can I go back and say goodbye?  Can I touch her one more time?”  

“Go ahead, Littlejohn.  It won't hurt her.”  

“And she'll feel it?  She'll know I'm here?”  

“Nah.  She won't feel a thing.  You don't exist... so to speak.  She'll just feel a breeze on her face or think there is a fly hassling her.  You can if you want, but sometimes it's better just not to look back.  ”

Littlejohn shook his head.  He looked to the friend he'd thought he lost so many years ago in France.  “Then I won't bother her.  Guess I'm ready.”

Billy walked to the open front door.  “There's a couple people outside who've been waiting a long time for you.”

Littlejohn looked over the younger man's shoulder and saw a small knot of men standing under the elm tree in the front yard.  He immediately recognized the one with the camouflage helmet tucked under his arm. And there were Caje and Kirby...Doc...Hanley.  Each lifted a hand in greeting.  

“Y'know, they look just like they did back in '44.  They haven't changed a bit.”    He glanced back toward  Billy, catching his own reflection in the mirror over the sideboard.  “Look at me!” he marveled.  “I look...”

“You look good, buddy.”  

Littlejohn studied the reflection a moment longer.  He zipped up his field jacket; then he turned and walked through the door to join his squad in the warm light of a new day.