They didn’t think it could be done.  They couldn’t believe it.  Too many men had died.  Died already.  And it’s hard to believe in something if you think you’re going to die believing it.

            It’s kind of like that saying: Kill you with kindness.  Hard to believe.  Doesn’t seem possible.  And so you’re tempted even after being warned.   The secret telling you the secret.  Then it just takes time.  Time and faith.  What time does to faith, and what you come to hope for.  How this form of forgiveness kills you, over time.  It kills you if that seed is planted, and you remember.

            It’s what David Threnody knew—he knew it after—after coming home.  Coming home after the war.  The kindness he was shown for the things he had done.  The hardest thing—the hardest thing about it finding something to believe in again.  Something to believe in that didn’t kill him…  It was the Ardennes, Belgium—December, 1944—and that was what David was thinking.  He was thinking about going home and being treated kind and what that meant to him now.  He was thinking about opinions—his opinions and the different opinions of his comrades on the planned counteroffensive.  Because it was Christmas.  Christmas Eve in Bastogne.  And they were all cold and hungry, willing to believe in anything.  They were ready to eat their own guts.  The snow in the trees at night un-silent and illuminated by the artillery bombardments of the siege.  They were willing to believe anything, but they couldn’t believe it.  They didn’t think it could be done.  Their faith frozen.  Their hope gone.  No one believed David Threnody could save the church where so many of the families huddled.  Patton was too late.  The town would fall.  They were all going to die, slowly, if not suddenly with bullet or bomb, then under the kind unanswerable siege, the duress of time and starvation. 

No, time didn’t change it.  It didn’t take it away.  Even after the things I’d done—the things I’d seen—watching men die.  Children die.  Mothers… Even after that shock, that concussion of air in an explosion—that disorientation and how you remember it after—you don’t get rid of it.  You don’t get rid of the fear.  That gut response when you go into a fight.  When you’re just waiting.  Waiting on an enemy.  No, all time did was press down, press down everything at once—time pressed it in a line—and you almost became unthinking.  You just did it.  You just pulled the trigger.  You became used to the dirt on your body, the wrecked buildings.  The rot and disease.  Snow in rooms without roofs, almost like the furniture was in some art display in a museum, red under white covering not meant to melt—ghost trimmings of the artist…  But you never lost the fear.  Nervous ticks surfacing under the stress.  Certain compulsive rituals a soldier went through in superstitions they never would have believed before coming to the front.  You just get to know it.  You get to know the fear.  How it feels coming out alive.  And by the time I came to Bastogne I’d made friends with it, I guess.  I made friends with the fear.  I placated it with my knowledge… but I would never loan it money.

–David Threnody, on the siege of Bastogne—from his journals 1948 to 1955

            And maybe it’s easy.  It’s easy to make friends with fear.  It’s easy when you realize it has many friends.  David knew he was lost.  Lost in the shuffle.  Just a name.  A number.  He’d seen casualty lists that looked like this.  Deployment orders.  Where you forget about the men—individual men—and see only battalions, companies, regiment symbols.  He was small.  The little guy.  And expendable…  And so it’s not hard after this.  It’s not hard to make friends with the fear.  Your life isn’t serious.  Your happiness can go by unnoticed just as your sadness.  What you do is not important, and if you die doing it—well, there will be others…  It’s almost safe in a way.  Because you’re not alone, but you are.  You belong to something—a race, a gender.  You acquire habits others acquire.  You have your religion.  Even your weird hobbies can find a community.  You belong to something so much bigger, and in a way your vote doesn’t even have to count, with so many others like you.  You’re just a sampling of a demographic, quietly on file—a statistic on a spreadsheet…  When you feel that way the fear kind of goes away.  Your life and the choices you make lose all its significant drama, and you are free to do what you want.  You are free in your anonymity.

            Sometimes it’s good to feel small.  Sometimes it’s the only way to get a good judgment of your worth, and you find strength you never had.  You find it because it’s given to you in that moment you lose everything else.  You find it when you find your insignificance.  And David was on guard that night—Christmas Eve in Bastogne.  A night when he could look up at the stars and feel it.  He could feel his insignificance and his strength.  His breath just a small cloud in the wintry expanse.  And all the things he could think about, all his opinions on the matter—this erased, blank—what he received from the silence all around him more because of it.  His anonymity still responsible to his fate.

            There were just larger forces at play.  By December, 1944, the goal of the German offensive was the harbor at Antwerp.  In order to reach it before the Allies could regroup and bring their superior air power to bear, German mechanized forces had to seize the roadways through eastern Belgium.  Because all seven main roads in the Ardennes mountain range converged on the small town of Bastogne, control of its crossroads was vital to the German attack. The siege began on the 20th of December, leaving American forces waiting to be relieved by elements of General George Patton’s 3rd Army.  David Threnody was a part of these forces, along with Johnny Tribout, and the remnants of what was left of their anti-tank battalion.  It may seem strange that a black man such as David Threnody saw the fighting he did, and in Bastogne was found in a white man’s outfit, but that’s a story in itself.  The story of this story.  According to David, and in interviews Johnny gave later, it was their music.  David’s guitar playing got him where he was, commanding officers overlooking the color of his skin because of what it did for morale.  But this could be a case of larger forces at play as well.  Popovitch might have had a hand in it, in what was noted in David’s file when he was enlisted.  Whatever the case, the fact and fiction of it, the story of David seeing his share of battle and soothing evil spirits during the war with his guitar has a nice ring to it, and by December of 1944, he was a seasoned veteran and still just a number.  He was still anonymous, and the fact he was black unimportant—given the mess, the mess in how logistics are handled during a war.  Records being what they are we’ll never know really, and all we have is the story, the story of how David had to be there.  He had to be in Bastogne, Christmas 1944.  He had to defeat the Goliath.  Not because he was significant, but because what had to happen was.

            We were just together—in it—Johnny and I.  We weren’t always together, but we were in it.  Didn’t matter where he was.  Where I was.  A soldier’s story ain’t really about reality because the reality’s too real.  No, a soldier’s story is dreams.  And I suppose he knew my dreams just like I knew his, and when we ended up together in Bastogne our eyes were wide open… His outfit didn’t seem to mind.  We had bunkered in for the siege.  Counting our ammunition and keeping warm by a fire inside a building with its structure still mostly intact.  And I had my guitar and Johnny had his harmonica.  We played Christmas songs… But that’s not what I remember.  That’s not what I remember about Bastogne.    It’s something I still feel now.  A decision I still need to make.  When I look at what I have and what I haven’t got and I know what surrender means.  What it means if I give up…  A life ends many times if you contemplate it.  It ends in that moment before action as you unravel the consequences of doing nothing.  And maybe it was hopeless.  Our situation there in Bastogne.  It was Christmas and we were surrounded.  No medical supplies.  No food.  And we were left just sitting there.  Waiting.  Waiting on something to happen…  And that’s the decision I still make, even now—choosing how I wait, for some forms of waiting don’t seem like waiting at all.  I still must decide, every day—to be me.  I must choose not to be defeated even when I can’t win, and abate the death that’s doing its own waiting…  I saw two children.  That night I made my patrol of the Bastogne streets—Christmas Eve.  I was checking on our perimeters, and the Germans had ceased their bombardment, at least for a while.  The days were short so soon after the solstice, so it might have been early even though it was dark—I don’t remember—but I saw them through a window.  Two girls, sisters I imagine, and they were decorating a tree.  Not really a tree—it looked like a broken wooden post, possibly from a hall tree or standing coat rack, on which they had hung ribbons, hair ribbons.  And they were playing, playing and fighting at the same time.  In just standing there at the window for a minute, I saw them go through a whole myriad of emotions.  They got mad, cried, and then were laughing.  Neither of them were of school age, and the younger one you could tell had just learned to walk, only knowing a few words while the older one did most of the talking.  I remember standing there, outside that window, in the cold and dark, the smoke of my breath fogging up the pane, thinking—they could be mine, my own children, and what they were doing now, decorating a tree as sisters will, was worth fighting for.  It was worth me giving up, not to some enemy—not defeated—but giving up thinking there was something to give up—that arrogance.  So they could grow up and see what I saw…  It’s that purity—you know.  That purity that makes everything pure.  Because as I watched them I saw them doing what you don’t mind children doing, but if it were you or me—an adult—we might watch and be ashamed.  We might watch and judge.  They were just being themselves, and I don’t know when you lose that and become something else—something you live with—and this not about lost innocence—that’s not what I felt looking through that window, watching two  sisters wait for Christmas to come—too much had happened already and I had forgotten about that—that answering to my name.  That’s not what I was feeling.  I was thinking what was outside of this.  This street where I stood, looking in a window—where that street led, outside of this town, outside Bastogne, and who was there waiting in the darkness.  There was something out there that wanted to hurt them—these children.  Something out there wanted to hurt them, and I couldn’t get my head around it.  There were just men out there.  Men with children, some of them at least.  Men remembering children, this night—in the kind lies they were told.  I couldn’t get my mind around it.  How you become something you shouldn’t be.  Even when you try to do the right thing, when you’re told you’re doing the right thing, and not doing what you’re told makes you wrong—makes you dangerous.  But these children—they knew—they knew what it was not to do what they were told and were sometimes disciplined, sometimes just amusing, but they were never dangerous, never a threat…  How’d this happen?  I couldn’t get my mind around it, not in how this is lost, not in how we even live with it—this a basis for all our stories, all our sketch comedies—but how we become threatened by it, how we become threatened by just being ourselves.  How there’s something out there that wants to hurt that, some force giving absurd orders we must follow, and what happens if you choose to be a child again, if you choose not to listen, not do what you are told—how that’s looked on in an adult world…  I just wanted to help.  I wanted to help these children, and the only way I could do that was to kill what was out there, kill men merely following orders—I had to hurt what wanted to hurt—and I questioned what I was really defending, who I was protecting.  Was I really protecting these children?  Or just protecting something I needed to hold onto, some idea I saw through that window that gave me sanity in the reality I faced.  The reality those children faced—Christmas Eve in Bastogne…

 –David Threnody, on the siege of Bastogne—from his journals 1948 to 1955 

            And so you answer.  You answer first and think about it later, and then, if it feels right—you stick with it—you defend your answer.  And that’s what happened in this case.  Contingents of the Fifth Panzer Army encircled Bastogne the night of 20 December, and on the 22nd of December, when they demanded surrender, the American commander, Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, responded with derision: “Nuts!”  And he stuck with that answer.

            It was a good answer.  An answer that wins when asked, when asked the question:  Why should you love your enemies?  It was answer that never meets defeat.  There is no defeat because there is no enemy to defeat you…  Strange—this filtering process, this filtering of reality—when you think someone wants to hurt you.  It is societal and it is individual.  A society works when at its basis you do no harm to another.  No one will is imposed on another—this the mirror of a free society.  This is the mirror of individuals trying to be free.  And you’re never free when you have enemies.  When you see someone as an enemy.  And it happens when wills clash.  When what you desire interferes with what someone else desires, and you feel threatened.  They want to take something from you—take something away—and you feel you must defend yourself, defend your beliefs, defend your life.  What’s strange is when you’re put in this position, this position of defending your life—everything becomes ugly—manipulations, angles, negative emotions.  And in a way you lose what you’re defending anyway—by seeing the world this way, seeing your world as an enemy.  In a way you are defeated before you’ve even fought, not in winning—because you can become very good at that, you can become very good at war—the tactics of such—the trick the details of the spirit, not in physical damage—that visible destruction merely the effects of what’s completed first in the heart of your opponent.  For what an enemy takes from you is not your freedom, but your faith that it’s even possible, and once that’s accomplished the rest comes fairly easily.  This form of winning is really losing.  You lose in what you have to become, and your world is not something you really want to live in—it becomes a mirror of lies.  A world where you must hide your weaknesses, deny them, and build protections around them.  You can never feel guilty because it will be used against you.  You can never be yourself…  But they say love your enemies.  So obviously enemies exist in order for you to love them.  In this life you still must distinguish between an enemy and a friend.  There are people out there who wish to harm you.  They want to make you afraid.  They want to steal your hope.  And it can be ever so subtle.  Destroy a man’s purpose and you destroy the man.  Disrupt his routines.  Upset his order of things.  Given enough time—chipping away at him like this—you will see him fall…  That is unless he loves you.  Then even as he falls he is not defeated.  He has killed you.  He has killed you with his kindness…  And it is hard.  It’s hard to get you mind around it—that subtle trick that turns love into hate, and vice versa.  It’s hard to make someone feel that.  Feel really loved, feel loved in order to love.  It’s hard, but then it’s really easy.  It’s easy when you make that discernment, that discernment between an enemy and a friend, and you love them the same, when like a child you don’t change who you are because of them.  It’s easy when you are yourself, and all that that means.

            And that’s when the door opened—David by the window, a soldier with snow on his shoulders, his hand frozen holding the strap of his rifle—the door opened and a woman came out, the mother.  She was the mother in how she closed the door, quietly, still peeking in on her children by their tree—David could still see them through the window—and it was that sense that he got, an impression of a mother on Christmas Eve night, bundled up in any warm clothes she could find, distracting her children for a moment so she could hide from them, hide from them for a moment in order to bring them gifts, like she were sneaking out to go to where they were hidden, maybe a wood pile, or a garden shed.  That was the impression he got, but that’s not why she came out.  She had seen him, watching, as she listened to Berlin radio, her husband bed-ridden, one of the wounded in the house (for it was her whole family there now, and others) her husband’s head hurt from one the earlier bombardments, when part of the ceiling fell, this in the house she was born in, for she was born in Bastogne—but she had seen David, she had seen him watching her children through the window, and that’s why she came out.

            “Can you help me?”

            And she doesn’t stop as she asks David this.  She is still walking, walking by him, expecting him to follow.  She doesn’t stop, but as she passes he can see her face, clearly delineated in the shawl wrapped around her head, in the scarf about her neck tight beneath her chin.  The eye contact is only for a moment, the face what he remembers, like the eyes make it in focus—the face and not the problem the eyes pose.  And it becomes something else, something else better told in his mind—David’s mind.  Like the response to a dream:

            She had me follow her to a grave.  To a funeral that happened that day.  You don’t think about funerals too much during a war, but they happen.  It’s just that they’re really not observed the way you imagine.  I guess there’s just too many of them.  Too many for any one to be unique.  And it was almost like she wanted to tell me something like I was her husband.  Like she wanted her husband to go with her on this journey, but he couldn’t, and she needed a man, any man—to be her friend…  It was a boy she remembered.  The first boy she kissed—she told me the story as I walked with her.  We went by the school where they first met, the first floor of it still standing, on our way to a field where the graves were dug—a new cemetery… 

            “He treated me like I was person.  He didn’t laugh like the others when I first tried putting on make-up.  I was thirteen and I was afraid he would laugh, but he didn’t.  He told me I was pretty…  And he taught me to kiss—nothing more—he didn’t go any further than that, but we kissed a lot.  It was the summer when I started my first period, and we met by the river, the River Meuse.  We met by the river and kissed…”

            I felt she needed me.  For what I wasn’t sure.  But she gave me another choice in those limited options we felt under the siege of Bastogne.  She gave me the choice to feel needed.  To listen to her pain, her goodbyes, not like that cold impersonal force out there waiting for our surrender, but as a human who had failed as well.  She needed me to hear a story.  A story of a kiss.  A story of a kiss between a boy and girl.  And even though the man was dead, she as a woman still remembered, and there is no evil in a woman’s memory.

            “Maybe I’m bad.  Maybe I’m a bad woman.  I don’t know when I became bad, but maybe I’m bad.  You get broken enough times maybe that’s how it happens.  You have nothing more to give and you have to protect what you have left and you don’t know how to love anymore.  My husband’s a good man, but sometimes I hate him.  I hate him for failing me.  I hate his weakness.  I hate that his head is hurt.   I hate how I have to take care of him now, how I have to take care of our children…  You Americans think you’re saving us, but my town is being destroyed just the same.  And do you think it’s them?  Do you think they are in control?  The Germans?  Maybe that’s how it happens.  Enough time under siege like this.  Enough time wanting something from somebody that they won’t give you—you get tired of hurting.  You have memories.  Ideas.  Like how I want to see where he’s buried—the first boy I kissed.  But it’s selfish…  I’m doing it for me now, not for him…”

            It was the night before Christmas.  And I found the humor in it.  The humor in the errand I was taking with this woman.  I found the humor in my importance.  The town in a blackout.  The only white the snow.  And maybe she sensed my impressions and knew they were more than just the situation we found ourselves in.  I was just a stranger here.  I didn’t know these streets.  I wasn’t born in Bastogne.  I was black…  But none of that really mattered.  None of my impressions mattered, nor did her responses to them matter.  We were just being tempted.   I was a soldier waiting on reinforcements, and she was a civilian caught in the middle, a citizen of a town that suddenly contained strategic importance to the larger forces at play.  And that’s what we were—pawns to these forces—being tempted into believing we were just pawns.  That even her doubts, my doubts in her and her intentions in needing my help, were just the intentions of what put us there, what put us there together, what made us meet—me a witness of her children through a window on a lonely patrol.  Intentions that made us equal…

            She thought there would be flowers.  She told me the boy had many friends.  He was the son of an important man in town—a member of a large family.  There would be flowers.  Flowers to mark his grave.  But there weren’t.  There were no graves with flowers in the new cemetery.  Only the fresh dirt told you were someone was buried.  And it was dark—we couldn’t see…  She didn’t look for long.  It was cold, and our hands were frozen.  I watched as she walked over the graves, stooping down, trying to read the words on the erected crosses.

            “I just need to say it.  Not to him.  Not to you.  Not even to myself.  I just need to say things.  Good.  Bad.  It doesn’t matter—not here.  Just things you say for the moment.  Things you say for this day, and what you feel now, saying what you think, the thoughts about what you feel, now…  Things you say and you mean them when you say them.  Answers to life’s questions, life’s meaning—you say them here and the silence lets you know someone is listening.  And what you say today, what you’ll say tomorrow—you become these things as you say them.  You are all these things as you say them, and trust, doubt, good and bad—they are all you.  You become what you say here, among graves…  And I’m just a woman.  A woman just trying to say goodbye.  Goodbye to an old friend…”

            I took her home.  I took her back to that window where I saw her children.  I said nothing to her, and I don’t think she expected me to.  Maybe I’d been a husband to her, in that walk looking for a grave.  I was what she needed from her husband…  There would be fighting tomorrow—I knew it.  And I wondered if we would hold.  If on Christmas we would fall—the town would fall.  And this was significant.  This battle we were in was significant.  Not because of some map, some objective.  It was significant because of this woman—what she showed me in the search for a grave—she would fall if we fell, and what would happen?  What would happen to her children?

            –David Threnody, on Bastogne—from his journals 1948 to 1955