Author : J.D. Rice
No one ever comes into manhood dreaming they’d one day go off to war. Sure, some boys sign up voluntarily, in peacetime and besides, with good notions like “defending one’s country” and “promoting democracy.” But those are just words. No one ever really goes to war of their own volition, knowing and understanding exactly the kind of hell they’re walking into. I didn’t. I got my draft papers and just went off to Nam without another word. One tour of duty was all they were asking for, and I wasn’t so unpatriotic as to let someone else go in my place. Only the cowards ran to Canada anyhow. Except now I wish I had been a coward. I guess that’s just how war changes you.
I remember a private in my platoon, thought he was going to be some kind of damn war hero. He’d volunteered. He was excited. He was a goddamned idiot.
“You just wait til we get to that open field on the northern border,” he used to say. “That’s where it’s going to happen. I’m going to be a hero, you just wait and see.”
We laughed, but we could all see that this boy was different. Every engagement, he’d go in with eyes like a child playing a game of baseball. He just looked into the jungle, smiled, and fired into the trees like he knew exactly where the enemy was hidden. Sometimes he’d get lucky. Other times he’d hit nothing but bark and leaves. In every case, that smile stayed on his face, like the war just wasn’t real to him, like it wouldn’t matter if any of us lived or died. It would have given us all the willies if the boy weren’t so likable in all other respects, idiot though he was.
Most days while we marched this private would entertain us by reciting his favorite science fiction stories, famous ones according to him, though most were unfamiliar to the rest of us. He’d talk about the flying machines that were coming down the pipeline, about the bigger and badder bombs the government was making, about space and time travel and all the rest. He’d cite authors like Crichton, Scott Card, Axelrod and Kachelries. I’d never heard of a damn one, but he talked about them like they were saints.
“Just you wait and see,” he said. “They’re going to be huge!”
We all just chuckled and thanked our stars that at least he wasn’t a damned coward.
But eventually, as it always does, the war got the best of even him. We were just off the northern border when the enemy came upon us out in the open. We were surrounded on three sides, outnumbered and outgunned. Poor boy just froze up, took a bullet right to the chest, and went down in the first five minutes. I don’t think he ever fired a single shot. After our retreat, I found him among the wounded, dying and unattended. The medics had already marked him for death.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” the boy said as I knelt beside him. “They said I would be a hero. They said the technology was flawless. I’d be him. I’d live his life. God, this wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Despite my desire to look away, I stayed with the private while he muttered on. War made fools of us all, and I wouldn’t shame him by leaving his side. It’s not like I had anywhere else to be.
“Infinite universes,” he said again, a small drop of blood running down his chin. “Infinite possibilities. They said it was flawless. They said…”
But he said no more. He was gone.
War is hell. Even the most confident and foolhardy among us eventually fall under its weight. If we don’t falter in life, it creeps up on us, breaking our spirits in death. That poor private’s face, which had for so long held that expression of stupid, youthful exuberance, now only showed the cold, hard reality of disappointment.
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