Coffee Klatch

 

By Lois Overton aka Foxhole Filly

2006

 

 

The wind whipping through the open doorway riffled a stack of papers on the small wooden kitchen table that currently served as a desk. Lt. Hanley, deep in conversation on the field phone, rocked back as far as humanly possible in the rickety folding chair. He reached over and absently laid his .45 atop the pile to anchor it. An almost unidentifiable form entered the room and pushed the door shut with some degree of force against the blizzard outside. Heavy streaks of snow, driven by the fierce wind, covered the soldier from head to toe. Even the man's stubbly chin and eyebrows glistened with a thick coating of ice crystals. He removed his helmet and a mound of snow slid off, plopping onto the floor where a puddle began to form on the well-worn boards. Hanley motioned the man over.

"Yes, sir. That's everyone except Saunders, and he just got back from patrol. After I debrief him, I'll get back to you," Hanley said.

A thin soldier bundled in a sweater and neck scarf leaned in toward the sergeant. "Psst, Sarge," he whispered, "I heard about the abdominal snowman when I was a kid, but till now I ain't never seen one."

"The abdominal snowman? Well, now you can die happy, O'Brien," Saunders whispered back.

"That's OK; I'm not that interested," the private said, returning to the pile of papers on the ammo box.

Saunders stomped the snow that had collected on his boots and shook his shoulders to brush off what snow remained. Removing heavy woolen gloves, he stepped over to the stone fireplace where a small, but lively fire crackled. He stuck out his hands and tried to warm them for the first time in days. Hanley continued on the radio, and Saunders turned to take the chill off his backside as he blew on his palms.

"Yes, sir, as quiet as things have been here, I think we have this sector sewn up. I'll know more as soon as I get his report." Hanley motioned for the speaker on the phone to hurry up. "Yes, sir. Yes, that's true. I'm sure he does."

The lieutenant held up his cup, motioning with it over toward the dented enamel coffee pot resting at the edge of the embers of the fire. Filling a large mug with the steaming, dark liquid, Saunders strode back and sat on a chair facing the lieutenant, rotating his shoulders and head to work the kinks and tiredness out of his back. Finally he settled back on the chair and warmed his still-red hands around the large metal cup, breathing in the strong aroma of the coffee.

"Yes, sir, I can do that." Hanley tossed Saunders a rumpled pack of cigarettes. "Yes, sir. No, sir, I won't forget that." Hanley rolled his eyes.

Saunders shook his head gently, smiling as he lit up a cigarette and tossed the pack back to the lieutenant.

"Yes, sir. Out." Hanley placed the phone back on its cradle and strode to the coffee pot where he refilled his cup, then glanced back at the sergeant. "If the war was going to be won by words, we'd be in Berlin by now." Sitting down again, he propped his feet on an extra chair. "Well," he reached for a cigarette and lit it, "what did you find out?"

Saunders rubbed the rough stubble on his chin and cheek. "It's just like you thought, Lieutenant. We didn't find anything to even suggest anything was out of line. We found tank tracks just before the snow started, but they didn't look fresh. If something's going on in this sector, we just didn't see it. Maybe air recon can spot something from up there...if they can ever get off the ground." The cigarette bobbed between his lips as he spoke, a thin column of smoke wending its way toward the ceiling.

Saunders opened his coat and worked his way through the layers- jacket, sweater, shirt-and reached into the breast pocket, removing a rumpled map covered with notations. Smoothing it as best he could, he handed it to the lieutenant.

"HQ has information that the Krauts are planning something. Just bits and pieces at this point, but pretty reliable. Problem is figuring out where. That's why we blanketed the whole front with patrols this afternoon. They're pretty sure nothing involves our sector, but had to make sure."

"Any idea where they're thinking it might come from?"

"With reinforcements from the 7th sent to back up the Ardennes," Hanley stated, "they're left pretty thin. If the Krauts punch through the 7th...."

"The third army's backside is exposed. Makes sense."

"Exactly. Or they could go after our air power. That's a distinct possibility. As a matter of fact, word is they've even moved extra flak guns forward in case the Luftwaffe decides to get involved. Perfect Kraut strategy to make a push on the first day of the new year, send up a message to us or something. Well, if this storm blows itself out tonight as predicted, the weather tomorrow should be perfect for flying. Air recon'll probably be able to tell if anything is brewing."

"You know, if bad weather leaves us as blind as Bastogne was, we'd be in the same mess they were." He reached over and pointed to a series of lines on the map. "This is where we saw tank tracks. Here...here...and over here. I verified all the positions with compass." He took a long swig of coffee, wiping a stray drop of liquid from the corner of his mouth. "Damn that's bad coffee."

Hanley smiled. "Yeah, it's pretty awful. That's what makes it so good." He finished making several notations and refolded the map, turning to O'Brien. "Here, take this to Company Command. They're expecting it. And that'll be all for the night. I'll wait up for a response."

"Yes, sir." O'Brien slid into his coat, buttoned it up, and wrapped his head in a long wool scarf. "See you in the morning. And happy New Year, sir." He exited to a cold blast of snowy air.

"Same to you, O'Brien." Hanley stretched and rubbed his eyes. "Man, I'm tired. As soon as I hear back from Company, I'm hitting the hay."

"I know what you mean," Saunders replied, knocking the ashes from his smoke onto the floor but making no move to leave. The only sounds in the room were the whine of the wind beating snow against the windowpanes and the crackling of the fire. Small as the fire was, it felt better in that room than in the drafty barn he and his men were holed up in. Neither man said anything for a few minutes. They just sat and soaked up the peace and warmth of the moment. It was a comfortable silence, each man alone with his thoughts.

Hanley was first to break the stillness. "You know, just a year ago, I never even dreamed I would be here doing what I'm doing now. For all I knew in those days, I'd finish out my hitch stateside in relative comfort. Life was a whole lot easier then."

The sergeant took a drag on his cigarette. He looked intently at the glowing embers that shimmered with changing colors.

"When I was a kid, a fire always meant marshmallows," Saunders said absently. "Don't suppose you have any." The sergeant dusted his hands on his thighs and wandered to the window. "Sure is coming down out there," he commented, trying to scratch a peephole in the grime and frost that clouded the glass.

"You don't talk much about yourself do you, Saunders." It was less a question than a statement.

"Not much to talk about."

"I mean about where you come from...your family and all."

Saunders slipped off the heavy coat and let it rest open on the back of the chair. "I guess it seems safer not to spend too much time thinking about home."

Hanley nodded knowingly. "Makes a man lonely."

"Thinking about home at the wrong time, can make a man dead."

"Do you remember where you were last New Years?" Hanley asked, emptying the cup.

Saunders roughed his shaggy head. "Yeah, kinda like to forget it. Italy. Trying to stay warm. Now here I am in France, still trying to stay warm. Some things never seem to change, Lieutenant."

"Cold there, you say? I always thought of Italy as warm and sunny."

"Not where Grady and I..." He stopped mid-sentence and dropped the final inch of cigarette on the floor.

"I was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. With a woman."

Sarge smiled and ground out the butt with his toe, then lit another. He leaned back, resting his arm on the windowsill. "A looker?"

"Oh, yeah. Best gams I've ever seen. Even better than that gal Hazel we used to see back in England."

Saunders whistled. "She must've really been something. Hazel had great legs."

"Her name was Paula. Her father ran the mercantile in the small town near the camp. That was where all the guys hung out. It was about all there was." He poured a refill for the non-com, and then he poured one for himself. "To me, New Years was always cold and snow and the bright lights of the city. Then suddenly there I was in the sleepy south ringing in 1944, and it was hotter'n hell."

"I know what you mean," Saunders replied. "We drove through there once at Christmas when we were visiting a cousin stationed at Pensacola. Just didn't seem right that it was hot in December." He laughed. "My little sister saw the ocean for the first time that year. Scared her to death. She grabbed hold of my neck, and I thought she'd drown me before I got her to quiet down."

"Just you and your sister?"

"There were five of us kids. Me, then Tom, Chris, Joey, and Louise was the baby."

"So you have four brothers and sisters at home? Seven's a big family."

"Not seven." Saunders corrected himself, his face clouding. "One of my brothers died. Short time later my father packed up and left." 

"Musta been rough."

Saunders continued staring outside a moment as a flurry of flakes whipped the window in an icy barrage. He hadn't meant to say that much. Then he turned back to the lieutenant. "You come from a big family?"

"No, just me and my parents. Only child. My father's an accountant. I suppose he plans for me to be one, too."

"And what do you plan, lieutenant?"

"I haven't the foggiest. I know I don't want to be an accountant. I don't see myself cooped up in an office unless it is an awfully nice office. And you? What will you do after the war?"

The chair moaned with the sergeant's weight as he dropped back down on it. "No idea. I think I might like to go to school. Let the army pay for it. So what were you doing in Tuscaloosa?" the non-com asked, changing the subject. 

"I was a drill sergeant at the time. Training the guys to come over here. I'd put on my real tough top sergeant's voice and acted like I knew what I was talking about."

"You know, I don't think I ever saw that side of you back in England."

"Yeah, you saw through me from the first. You weren't the least bit afraid to confront me head on in those days. I didn't want you to know then, but you made my life miserable."

"You were pretty green. But you listened, and you learned fast." 

"When I was doing my top sarge routine to guys who didn't know any better, I thought I was pretty good." Hanley set aside his cup and placed his balled-up fists on his hips, spread his legs, and transformed his friendly face into one meant to inflict terror in the hearts of eighteen year olds. His brow knitted and dark eyes flashed. "Now you listen to me, you just might survive long enough to make it back to your mama. Do you understand?" he bellowed, spitting out each staccato word. Then he turned to Saunders. "I believe the correct response is 'Sir, yes, sir.'"

"Uh...sir, yes, sir," Saunders replied half-heartedly.

Hanley stepped in closer. "I can't hear you!" He shouted into the sergeant's face.

"Sir, yes, sir. Definitely." Saunders smiled at this new side of the officer.

"This is an M-1." He held a pretend rifle at arm's length. "It is your friend. Your best friend. You do not mistreat your best friend. You take care of it. You love it. You...."

Hanley stopped suddenly, aware of the cold wind that whipped through the room. Billy stood in the doorway, his M-1 raised, ready for action.

"Oh, Nelson," Hanley acknowledged, straightening quickly.

"Sorry, sir," he said quietly. I heard angry voices in here, and I thought something was wrong." Looking around the room and seeing nothing out of order, Billy lowered his weapon. Saunders covered his mouth to hide the laughter that was due to erupt.

Lieutenant Hanley laughed gently and smiled. "I was telling the sergeant about my days as a drill sergeant back in the states." 

"You were a drill sergeant?" the young private's eyes widened. "Wow, I never knew that. Where, sir?"

"Uh...Tuscaloosa. I spent about a year there." Hanley noticed Billy rubbing his gloved hands and eyeing the coffee. "Would you like coffee, Nelson?"

"Gee, thanks." He propped his M-1 against the wall next to the Thompson, unwound the olive green muffler from around his neck, and flopped down in the extra chair. His face was bright with the anticipation of being there on New Years sharing coffee with the two men he respected most in the army.

Hanley handed him a cup, and Billy blew across its surface a few times before taking a long gulp. He spat the coffee back into the cup, gagging.

"Gosh, Lieutenant, if we could just serve this to the Krauts, they'd surrender in no time," the private coughed. Then he looked up at Hanley, whose expression showed consternation. "Sir," he added quickly, hunched over the cup. "Good coffee. Think I might have two." 

"Billy," Saunders began, "You just learned an important lesson. Never criticize the coffee of the officer that determines who digs latrine trenches and when."

Billy hastily changed the subject. "You know, sir, maybe you should go into acting after the war. That drill sergeant stuff was very convincing. I bet Robert Taylor couldn't do any better."

"Nice try, Nelson," the lieutenant scowled, trying hard to keep his disgusted look from becoming a grin. 

"Hey, Sarge, how 'bout letting me have one of those cigarettes?" Billy asked, getting more brazen. 

"You don't smoke, Nelson," Saunders stated matter of factly.

"Yeah, but I think that if it's gonna be a new year, I should learn."

Saunders shrugged, and handed the young soldier a cigarette. Billy put it to his mouth. He grasped it between his index finger and thumb as he had seen the sergeant do and practiced pulling it from his lips and exhaling a pretend stream of smoke. Finally, he leaned in for Saunders to light it.

"You have to inhale...suck in your breath to light it," the sarge instructed.

Billy took a deep drag, filling his lungs with smoke. Grabbing his throat and collapsing over the table, he erupted into a coughing fit. Saunders pounded him on the back. When the spasms ended, Billy spat out a few stray bits of tobacco and lifted his head to find the sergeant leaning in, watching him, enjoying himself entirely too much.

"Man, that's awful. Why do you do that?" he questioned.

Hanley and Saunders looked at one another and shrugged. "Because we enjoy it," Hanley finally said. 

Billy held out his cup and Hanley filled it once again, emptying the pot. Billy drank the coffee thankfully; as bad as it was, it felt good on his burning throat. 

"Lieutenant, I think you finally found a use for your coffee," Saunders mused.

"It would seem so," Hanley noted as he prepared another pot.

"So, Billy, how did you spend last New Year's Eve?" Saunders asked.

Billy cleared his throat loudly again. "That's easy. I was with Evelyn. She was my girlfriend in high school. We had a big party and at midnight, we all had noise makers and banged on pots and pans. We went outside and listened to everyone else doing the same. Say...I wonder why everyone bangs on pots and pans at the New Year," he wondered.

Before anyone could answer, a knock sounded at the door.

"Enter," Hanley called. 

Caje walked in, caked with snow. A long wool scarf wound around his head so that only his eyes showed darkly against the icy coating. "Sorry to interrupt, sir. I was passing by...and ...well..." the Cajun stammered.

"Would you like some coffee?" Billy asked. "Excuse me, sir." He turned to Hanley, "That is if it's all right with you... I didn't mean to..."

"Coffee, Caje?" Hanley held up a cup. "Fresh brewed."

"Sure, Lieutenant...sounds good." 

"Join us," Saunders said with a motion toward the table. "Billy was just telling us about last New Year's

Caje shucked his coat and dropped it in a soggy pile by the door as he pulled a crate over to the table and plopped on it. The lieutenant put a steaming cup in his hand, and Saunders offered him the last cigarette from the pack.

"Thanks," Caje said lighting up and taking a drag.

"So where were you last New Year's, Caje," Billy asked, really getting into the topic.

"Me?" the Cajun's face lit up. "Last New Years, I was lying on a blanket with Marylou Robinson. We were counting the stars...among other things."

"That your girl?" Hanley asked.

"I wish. She was gorgeous. Blonde, green eyes, big...well, you know. She was something. I haven't thought about that night in a long time. Marylou, the stars, the bayou, and a whole bottle of cheap red wine."

Billy was leaning in, hanging on every word. "You gonna marry her when you get back?"

"Nah. She's engaged to a guy from Biloxi. Last I heard he was working for his dad in the family business. They drafted him but he had flat feet or something."

"You let her get away?"

"Her father would never let her marry me. He didn't like people of...inferior blood. That was how he referred to Cajuns. Inferior blood. Think I heard the word "frog" once or twice in conjunction with my name. Of course Daddy never knew what happened New Year's, and I'm guessing she never told him either. But it was one good time."

"I ate frog once. It tasted pretty good," Billy injected.

Hanley leaned into him. "Nelson, a frog is...well it is a racial slur. It's a way to put down someone of French descent. Like calling a person Polack or wop or nigger."

"Oh? Ohhh." Billy's face pinked. "Where do some people get off talking about other people like that? Why after the war I think we should just go find that Dad and teach him a thing or two about what America is fighting for."

"Whoa, Nelson," Saunders said quietly. It's exactly because of people like her father that we are fighting this war."

"Huh? I don't get it."

"He means" Hanley explained, "that we fight so people will have the right to be idiots if they want. It's part of having freedom. You can't just give freedom to the guy you agree with. The trouble with the Nazis is that they support only one idea...one person's view of things. If you disagree..." He ran a finger across his throat. "In America, on the other hand, we have the right to hold different ideas...right or wrong."

"Well, I still think it stinks."

The phone jangled. The lieutenant picked it up, and after a few words with the person on the other end, he put down the receiver. "Well, they're sending up reconnaissance planes tomorrow if the weather holds. Let's hope it does. I'd rather not be surprised by a division of Tiger tanks."

"No kidding," Saunders agreed.

Caje took a final puff on his cigarette and snubbed it out on the floor. "Well, tomorrow'll be coming soon. I guess we should be getting some sleep...in the barn....the cold barn."

Saunders opened a fresh pack and shook out a cigarette to Hanley and then to Caje. "Yup. We should be going."

"There's more coffee, Sergeant," Hanley offered. "I've still got a whole pot." 

"Thanks." Saunders held out his cup for Hanley to fill. Caje and Billy followed suit. Then Hanley filled his own.

Hanley glanced at his watch once more, then looked at each soldier one by one. "It's midnight. Happy New Year, Saunders...men. Let's drink to 1945 and peace."

The soldiers lifted their cups.

"Happy New Year, Lieutenant," Saunders said quietly.

"Yeah, Happy New Year, Lieutenant," Caje seconded.

"To peace," Billy chimed in.

Four metal cups clinked dully.