Death of Men

November 5, 2009

He had a picture of his mother and father in a pocket in his uniform. When the shell hit, bits of shrapnel sliced into him, one bit cutting through the photo.

He lay on the ground, staring up at the darkened sky, gasping for breath as fluid filled his lungs. In all his time he’d been at war, he had imagined what dying would
be like; He’d expected to die instantly…well, not necessarily expected, but he had hoped to die instantly. At any rate, whether dying slowly or dying
fast, the result was the same.

He could hear explosions and gunfire, and screaming from other men that had fallen. He wanted to cry out but couldn’t. He wanted to crawl to find shelter,
as he knew he was in danger here, but after months of fighting without so much as a scratch, he figured that somehow the odds were against him getting hit
to begin with, and that being mortally wounded was something that hadn’t been meant to happen. He felt the rush of death, could almost sense it as he
grew cold.

A German came down next to him, crashing into the mud at the bottom of the trench, landing on his feet, but collapsing. Blood poured down this man’s leg.
He would die slowly as well.

The enemy soldier collapsed and ripped his belt off, desperate to stop his life’s blood from draining from him. He wrapped the belt about his leg, above the
wound. Tommy (is my name tommy? he thought) watched this German deftly tie off the wound. A medic, Tommy thought, or maybe just very determined………..
Tommy coughed. The enemy spun about, now noticing him lying upon the ground, filthy with mud all over him. The German looked him over, probably wondering if he
was worth the time it would take to kill him. Tommy coughed some more, blood coming out of his mouth. His eyes didn’t even get wide as the German raised his
rifle and approached him. The American didn’t even bother to reach for a weapon. He was done with any fighting he’d been destined for, and this was the end.
He thought briefly about how cold he was, and then raised his hand to the German soldier as if in a “I give. Do as you like.” The man wouldn’t have understood
anything Tommy said anyway, even if he’d been able to talk. The German came closer to him, cautiously still, and bent down beside Tommy. The man
looked around behind him. Smoke, screaming, he seemed to take it all in. He opened Tommy’s shirt and looked at his wound and a grim look came over his face
as he realized what Tommy already knew, there would be no saving him.

The German soldier took hold of Tommy’s hand, gripping it tightly as if to comfort the boy, just barely 19. Tommy managed a smile, to let him know
that he understood the gesture. There was suddenly shooting nearby, and the sound of men running. The German looked around him, looked back at Tommy, who
was nearly gone now. Men dove into the trench next to the accidental friends and began pulling on their gas masks. Americans, these, like Tommy. They for
the moment took no notice of the kraut. The German, realizing what was happening, looked frantically for his gas mask. It was in the mud, with a hole in it.
He looked over at Tommy, who was looking back and forth between the newcomers and the he. Tommy used his last bit of strength to pull his gas mask out of
it’s bag, and handed it him. The kraut nodded and took it from him, placing it over his face.

Tommy gasped repeatedly as his lungs quit working, and to the German looked like a ridiculous parody of a fish in its death throes. He had been trying to
get behind enemy lines in the hope of surrendering, and quitting this madness, and now he was surrounded by Americans who would more than likely kill him
once they saw their dead comrade laying there in the mud, a Kraut bastard wearing his gas mask. He prayed to himself. He gingerly caressed Tommy’s face
as the life went completely out of the boy.

The mustard gas came.

Knowing the effects of mustard gas first hand, and knowing of its tendency to cling to the ground, the German forgot completely about his rifle
and shouted at the three american soldiers huddled at the bottom of the trench. He could only imagine the looks on their faces as he grabbed two of them by the
arm and began dragging them to one of the walls of the trench. The trench was no place to be, was no longer safe. He cried out in German at them. Then
the American boys remembered their training. They began scrambling out of the trench. The German soldier boosted one up, then another, with the first
soldier helping. They must have been horribly close to where the canister had found its mark, as the cloud seemed especially thick. The third US
soldier was finally up. The three doughboys paused and stared at the enemy soldier, unsure of what to do with him. He had helped them, but he was a kraut.
One of them finally screamed “Help him up!” and the other two moved frantically to assist.

Tommy watched all of this with a degree of fascination and awe. He looked over at his body, which now seemed more like…an empty box…to him. He took no
notice of the mustard gas, but watched his countrymen and the German. The four men seemed to be in a state of detente, Americans and German trying to decide
what to do next. Tommy walked over (could he still call it walking?) and stood with them. He felt like he was guarding them from something, but wasn’t sure
from what he was guarding them.

A whistling sound came singing through the air.

In an instant, Tommy found himself standing in a shell hole, blood and bone and gore scattered about on the ground. None of the four men were left.
The crater looked like God had punched the Earth in anger, not paying attention to who he struck down.

The ghost stood looking about him, but strangely, was not agrieved at the deaths of those men that had been standing here not a few moments ago. He
wondered if they too were ghosts, and if they would find their way back to the spot where they died. And then, as an afterthought, he wondered
if their deaths had been a better way to go than his, and then decided that to die slowly was better. he would have to ask them if he saw them again.

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