His skinny legs laid on top of each other, carelessly. They might as well been sticks of wood blown from a tree in the last storm of spring. But, it was winter and cold to the skin.
His emaciated upper limbs and center were bent over his legs, laying on them, lying still, almost like a statue.
He was not a statue.
The cigarette smoke curled from the burn, around his fingers, and passed quietly past his considerable nose.
Curled in his left hand was a proud tobacco bag, “Prince Albert, Long Burning Pipe, and Cigarette Tobacco.” In his right, a box of crepe burning papers. After carefully pouring the tobacco onto the paper, he could roll the cigarette using only his one hand.
But now, so far from the War, he stared into the distance, not seeing, not feeling, locked into some thought of a past. The Huns, opposite side, had preferred the pipe and had several elaborate versions of pipes.
So, the Yanks and Brits gravitated to a rolled one. Various smells floated from the trenches by night, as the soldiers had the one pleasure they could control.
His past was the Great War, wherein France, the Mustard gas had found his lungs and squeezed them, caressed and ruined them and left them horribly wanting.
His helmet had been lost as he thrashed in the trenches, sounds of coughing and dying from his fellow soldiers very closeby. All had been clustered near the wooden ladders, to allow them a climb through the French soil from the dirt clawed earth, to rise like ants running through the cannon, and barbed wire, and shrapnel, bullets to attack the horrible Huns hiding in their trenches just a few hundred yards away.
He had written his final letter to his dear mother weeks ago, as the dead piled up around him, and his hope to see her again died inch by inch, friend by friend.
Medics found him before the dawn broke. They rushed him to the rear while ignoring the piles of flesh and uniforms of the others too far gone for any hope.
Days later, a nurse saw his fingers jerk, shoulders cringe, and his face in pain. She saw his eyes open.
She said with a surprised smile, “Bon Jour, Tu es avec nous”. (Good day, you are with us)
And he passed out again.
More time passed. He awoke again. A different nurse, more British than French he thought.
She said, “Yank, you have a Blighty! You will be going home for that wound!”
“What about Tim, or Red, or Johnny Boy?”
The Nurse took a breath, as she had said this many times before.
“You are alive. There are so many dead, so few survive. Trust me, I have pulled the sheet up on many like you. You will go home soon Yank.”
And, she took her pail of red drenched wrappings away, turning from him so he could not see the tears in her eyes.
Now, in his mind, he saw the others fall.
“Why did I not die with my friends?”
A few days, and he was carried on the USS Columbia for a return to his mother.
The young men around him tried to smile, as he did, but it was as close to a fake emotion as a person could get. Most had nightmares, most had not fully left the battlefield. But, it would take a few weeks for the ship to move away from France back to the USA.
He tried to return to a normal life with a wife and kids and dogs. He tried but never fully did.
He struggled all of his life to smile, but it felt so fake.
He knew his life was at end now for sure. He knew the burn was gone in him.
Nearby was his only grandson that watched his grandfather with huge and trusting eyes.
The old man could not look him directly in his eyes, for the real fear of what he might see.
An old man’s ruin, with a child that had only open doors in front of him. A beautiful future filled with opportunities and wonder.
He knew it was time to speak, his silence had been too long this morning.
“Toby! I do hope when you are a young man, War will be gone. I hope the Warmongers and the fat Politicians will go fight a War or two, rather than sending our young our future. No one should ever see War, but once you do, it changes everything in what is left of your life and your soul. If those fat cats go and get shot at, they will not be Warmongers no more. Let the ones that make the bullets and guns be on the very front lines of the war, trading their bullets for the enemy bullets, let them hear the whine of a miss, versus the thump of a hit that likely caused their friends to die. They will know the value of an innocent child hit by accident, bled out and dead in the street. They will know the destruction of a church that stood 600 years, leveled by bombs, the beautiful artwork destroyed in the building no one will ever sing in again while searching for God. They will know and be gripped by total fear as the enemy stands so close you can smell them, and your knife and theirs is the only score that counts that day.”
The cigarette smoked curled towards him as he talked and navigated past him when he was quiet.
“But, the problem, Toby, is the fat cat politicians and the Warmonger do not get shot at, but they profit from hugely. I will not lie to you. It is pretty good odds, you will have to face this. But, God as my witness, I hope mankind can learn a new trick.”
He another cigarette from the pale Prince Albert bag, that had a bright and happy yellow drawstring.
Toby stared at his grandfather, as he stared into the past, and again the smoke curled from the burn.
A silence never to be forgotten, a lesson burned into a young mind, a future slightly ruined now.
How long can the heart of a fat cat be so cruel as to destroy the brightest and youngest of hope?
Though the honor and heroism is the best of life.