“Let’s talk about Australia.” A voice oiled with chicken fat, it seemed to Richard, attempted another prime-the-pump strategy to break loose his patient’s painful and locked-in combat experiences. Richard glanced at the wall clock and counted—actually mouthed—the tic tocks. Gotta be here, don’t have to talk.
“Surely those memories shouldn’t be that difficult to discuss.” Lieutenant Colonel Renford, uniform void of any combat ribbons, brushed an imaginary speck of dust off each epaulet.
Richard ignored the psychiatrist’s wide-eyed gaze and fought back recurring images: Geronimo—Kilroy—Jenkins—Heidt—Reed—Jennings.
The Japanese soldier writhing a few yards from the still smoking fifty-caliber machine gun possibly experienced flashes from his boyhood days back in Tokyo, but his buddy missing half a head instantly sacrificed his life to Japan’s emperor, bonsai his final testament.
Innocence of childhood masked the devastation his weapon had caused.
An arm around his midsection, butt planted firmly against the hip of his nine-year-old sister, bounding across railroad tracks near their home, down the well-worn path to town’s center; Pvt. Richard Leslie’s earliest memory. Fourth of July parade down Main Street, Melrose, Minnesota, 1929, details beyond a four-year-old boy’s comprehension, except from Margaret’s retelling their story many times at family gatherings. Cherished details: plopped down curbside, cheering and waving as vintage automobiles chugged and belched fumes with an occasional blast from a Model T Ford’s Klaxon.
The single Lucky protruded from its pack like a pistol barrel, but Pvt. Richard Leslie, hands locked on the rifle’s grips, eyes glued to his fresh kill, responded, “Margaret.”
Geronimo’s glance shifted from his gunner to the white package in his grip, its red eyeball glaring back—Lucky Strike Green had gone to war—and raised it to his lips. He shook the last five from the pack and passed them around; Kilroy, Jenkins, Heidt, Reed, and Jennings. Guts-to-go Kilroy shielded a flame, touched it to his cigarette, and ditched the match; no predawn target for a sniper to zero in on.
Geronimo crushed and tossed the empty pack, its cellophane wrinkling and smoldering atop a pile of spent cartridges, and reached for Kilroy’s lighted cigarette passed between the squad. “Margaret?” A cloud billowed through flared nostrils.
Richard shrugged, his stare unbroken.
Geronimo peeled the seal from a fresh pack with his teeth, stamped out a clump of cigarettes, and shoved it in Richard’s face. “Have one. Get the taste of cordite out of your mouth.”
Richard considered cigarette smoke no less harsh than that from spent ammo, but pinched one from the cluster and pressed it to a smoldering butt passed forward.
“Margaret?” Geronimo repeated his question. “Doesn’t matter.” Its tip a glowing cherry, he snuffed the cigarette, wrapped a field jacket around the barrel of the Fifty Caliber, and, muscles bulging, hoisted the weapon with tripod still attached.
“Better get our asses out of here.” He dipped his head toward Richard and remarked to the guys shouldering carbines and lugging ammunition. “Gotta take care of the little guy.”
Richard knew who would carry his lifeless body to field headquarters if a sniper got lucky and scored a gunner.
He shook off the image of his bullet riddled body and reconstructed—piece-by-piece—the picture of his father sloshing water across the kitchen floor. Giggling on top the kitchen table with his legs dangling, Daddy lifted the mop as if to scrub the table clean of his youngest child. Done in jest, at least then. Beyond a few such incidents, Richard would never get to know the father who abandoned him and his family prior to the birth of his younger sister, Rita.
With her five children decked out in store-bought clothes, Richard’s mother, six-months pregnant, boarded the same train whose company dispatch had frequently denied her husband their bed, requiring layovers at distant hotels—and shady ladies.
The last straw, one of these strumpets at her doorstep, baby in arms. “I would like to present another of your husband’s handiwork. I’ll just leave it here with his home-made bunch, one more won’t make a difference.”
“Morgan Leslie doesn’t live here,” and she slammed the door. She should have said, “Morgan’s family no longer lives here.”
Leaving an empty house and a huge debt at the local mercantile, she resettled her family in St. Paul, Minnesota, sharing an apartment with her married daughter, Edna. Margaret remained Richard’s beacon until she eloped and hitchhiked to California about the same time he graduated from juvenile court to the adult system and was forced to make a choice, prison or Army.
Lt. Col. Renford glanced up from his clipboard. “You and your buddies caught a ride to Sidney. Perhaps you got tickets to an opera at the Town Hall. I know you listen to classical music.”
“Yeah I do. No I didn’t go.” Richard’s gaze dropped and his head began to sway.
“Don’t leave me.”
“I ain’t going no place. We’ve got another half an hour together.”
“You know what I mean when I call you to attention, Private Leslie.”
“I’m not a private. Haven’t been since the war with the Japs ended and mine began. Maybe you meant private citizen.”
“Sorry, I misspoke.”
Richard braced himself for the colonel’s silent treatment, no more questions, no sound but the clock; their entire previous session a wall of quiet between them, his head loaded with World War Two unchecked.
Today’s session, he had allowed his psychiatrist to resurrect the carnage buried beneath weeks of drinking, carousing, screwing, and fast cars. He can’t allow that to happen again.
Australia seemed a safe place to dwell, but not to share.
“A beer please.”
“Sorry, Mate. Don’t know what that is.” The barmaid swiped a damp cloth and rearranged the dust into a swirl in front of Pvt. Leslie.
“Yeah, beer. That foamy stuff you got pictured out front, comes in those round kegs and piped to that spigot.” Richard anticipated the butt-end joke about his youthful appearance, a beardless one-hundred-thirty-five-pound nineteen-year-old rascal, and his tone intended to aggravate the surly barmaid. He assessed his situation: one grungy looking fellow a few stools to his left downing what appeared to be beer, Geronimo and the rest of his squad out buying trinkets to send stateside.
“Ain’t no beer for you makes its way through them pipes.” A curl of a sneer as the barmaid gestured with her head toward the mysterious figure, beckoning him forward.
The surge of anger pulsating through Richard’s temples erased the metallic taste of fear in his saliva, a rage not felt since he challenged his drill instructor to a no-holds-barred fight under the rules of combat. When the sergeant smirked and turned away, Richard threatened to hunt him down off base and kill him.
The sergeant’s response, “That ain’t gonna happen, Soldier, ’cause you’re shipping out tomorrow. Besides, the day will come when you will thank me.”
Had that day arrived even before actual combat? He clustered the fingers of his right hand for the deadly plunge into the throat as the man approached, Akruba slouch hat, brim sides curled and tacked, eyes shaded.
“I think this young pup wants more than just beer.” He forced his left arm around Richard’s neck and, with his right hand, tapped the tripod of fingers poised to attack. “No need for this, Mate.” Richard’s hand surrendered to the Aussie’s firm grip. “Give us a couple o’ pints of ale. That’s what Yank here craves.” One last shake and a firm hand squeeze, eyes penetrating, “Mate?”
“Mate!” Richard’s enthusiastic response transcended three years and resounded in a psychiatrist’s office at Ft. Snelling, Minnesota.
“Aha! Something interesting occurred in Australia.” The psychiatrist shifted his bulky bottom that filled the space between arm rests. “Remember what I told you. That shit can swirl around in your head, but like a bowel movement, it has to come out.”
A nail hit squarely on the head. The colonel’s smug expression brought a curl to Richard’s lips. Two wrong hits—his determination not to cooperate, and misjudging this soldier’s use of slang. Richard never succumbed to the vernacular that many people associate with combat veterans. A part of him still clung to an English heritage through his mother’s side, but he harbored a reserve of his Scotch father’s intensity when threatened.
Richard struggled to retrieve his interrupted memory, R & R in Australia that he had yet to earn through combat.
“What’s your unit, Yank? Trousers tucked inside your boots tells me something I might want to know about.”
“We’re not allowed to divulge that information.”
“Your secret is safe here. We’re on your side.”
Richard eyed his companion and succumbed. “The 503rd Parachute Regiment.”
“That explains the missing insignia.” He rubbed his chin stubble. “General MacArthur’s secret weapon.” He tipped his hat revealing a deeply etched face, testimony to years in the Outback. “What Company? A, B, C, D?”
“None. We’re Battery. We drop alongside whichever company requires artillery.”
“Just what I wanted to hear.” He grabbed both pints from the bar handing one to Richard. “We gotta clang glasses and chug-a-lug over that good bit of information.” Mugs crashed and ale splashed. The Aussie gulped. “I don’t cotton to jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.”
Richard took a long sip but drank little. “You a paratrooper?”
“Was ‘til now that you guys got here. Your crazy colonel commandeered our artillery unit, jammed us into C47’s, and shoved us out the door over Markham Valley. Not many of us ever even been up in a plane.”
Richard shook his head. “Crazy.” He understood how tough a jump would be without proper training.
“Yep, crazy ‘cause that colonel shot himself after a victory celebration with his officers.”
Richard acknowledged that fact with a nod. The news of the 503rd commanding officer’s suicide had reached his squad even before they disembarked. He respected the regiment’s replacement, Lt. Colonel Jones.
Banging his empty glass on the bar, the Aussie flashed two fingers toward the barmaid. “A couple of our guys got busted up on the jump, but the action on the ground was hardly worth our while.”
Not the account Richard’s tent mates back at base had described, but that had been their first taste of combat.
“You guys come in on the USS Young America?” Richard nodded. “Supposed to be the fastest ship afloat. What took you so long?”
Twenty eight days aboard ship, forced to sleep below deck even crossing the equator, and confined aboard ship during repair work at Pearl Harbor, none of which he wanted dwell on, especially the tangle of half sunken ships still blocking much of the harbor.
“A lot of sheep in Australia.” Lt. Col. Renford’s musing edged out the image of the Aussie soldier.
The scene at the pub interrupted, Richard grimaced and tried to refocus. Just a few minutes left on the clock, and he wants to talk about sheep!
He released a calculated amount of anger. “I didn’t attend an opera, and I didn’t encounter any sheep the few weeks my outfit spent in Australia.” A flash of memory broke through his rant at the colonel. “Montana’s where I learned to herd sheep.”
Richard checked himself. Whoever breaks the silence loses. He had mastered that sales strategy as a preteen selling magazines door-to-door. At the critical moment, stop the pitch, look the customer in the eye, and hand him the pen and order form.
Richard locked eyes with the colonel, a dangerous maneuver if still in uniform.
Lt. Col. Renford returned the glare, consuming minutes that had suddenly become precious.
Richard blurted, “I was fifteen, didn’t turn sixteen until September of that year.” The urge to talk about his Montana experience overwhelmed his desire to be coy. “Summer of 1940 and again in ‘41.”
He had broken silence but didn’t care. “Me and my brother Edward, he’s…was…two years older.” He shook off a painful memory. “Me and Edward hitched rides west with no destination in mind. Just an adventure with my older brother. We joined a bunch of bums riding an empty boxcar out of Williston, North Dakota, and got kicked off by the railroad bulls. Just to be mean, they waited ’til we were ten miles out of town and had to walk back.
That’s where we split up. Edward was fond of this girl back in St. Paul. Got lonesome, horny I teased, and headed home. I kept going. Had to prove I could make it on my own. Bumming food was easier than peddling magazines. I’d offer to chop wood, but no mother would make a starving boy work for food, and sometimes they would offer a little cash on the side.”
Richard anticipated a reaction, but the psychiatrist remained stone faced.
“I never took money unless offered.” He glanced at the clock. “Got as far as Billings. Stopped at a ranch where two big dogs met me at the gate. I always loved animals, and they seemed to take a shining to me. I impressed the owner, a guy with a ruddy face and a hearty laugh.”
“‘Them’s sheep dogs. Do you understand sheep?’”
“I told him I’d worked with sheep and cows and hogs. And that I rode horses to tend my trap line. I didn’t tell him I was a city kid ordered by juvenile court to a Wisconsin farm for attitude adjustment, and that I was still in grade school at the time.”
“He said, ‘Come with me while you’re resting,’ as if hitchhiking was hard work. We piled into an old International pickup, two dogs and a bunch of supplies in the back. I expected a short drive, but we rode that rattling old truck most of the afternoon.
Up in the mountains on a sloping grassy plateau, the field off in the distance appeared white.”
“‘Six thousand sheep,’ his voice bursting with pride. ‘Just one man and half a dozen dogs.’ His eyes locked onto mine. ‘Think you can handle it? I try to deliver supplies every week, but the cabin’s stock could last twice that long.’”
“I told him all he needed was to show me what to do.”
“‘My herder walked off the job yesterday. Couldn’t stand the isolation. I was planning to do the job myself, ‘til you come along. I can stay with you a few days ‘til you get the hang of it, and for the dogs to accept you as their master. I saw you work with the two sheep herders we brought with us—they’ll join the others until we bring the flock back this fall. Pay ain’t too good, but no place to spend money up here anyhow.’”
“I’m afraid I have to call time.”
Richard’s story had been interrupted, and he resented the slight, until he glanced at the clock. He had talked half way through the next patient’s appointment time.