A Call to Arms – Too Late for Legs
Copyright November 30, 2011 by Rod Merten
“Dammit, Sargent! Can’t those hands go any faster?”
“Take it easy, Dewar. Only two more hours and it’ll all be over.”
“Thought that once the Armistice’d been signed they would’ve stopped the fighting. ‘stead, it seems to be gettin’ worse.”
“Guess the generals are dead serious about that 11 am deadline.”
“All them elevens. Gotta be bad luck!”
“I thought it was kinda funny, myself. Ending this whole shebang on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11 am.”
“Sarge, I’d a-been happy if’n it stopped September 26th, 1917.”
* * *
“I know it’s my patriotic duty, Pa, but I’m almost thirty years old. I’m settled!”
“You got no choice, Duncan. The country and the Army need you.”
“Get yourself to Caro and make it fast. I did not raise you to be a coward!”
* * *
Duncan Dewar, pushing against tremendous odds, yearned to dance. To glide round the floor like a hummingbird, to feel the emotional release right down to his size 12 feet. To be lost in the moment, to forget where he was and who he was to become.
Dewar dreamed of Chicago most of the time, once in a while New York, and real rarely of European castles where he whirled to a Strauss waltz conducted by the maestro himself; not of throwing down hay, shucking corn, milking cows or following a horse round and round as he plowed the back 40.
Though barely ten years old in 1899, he had the dreams of a grown man that matched his working like one. What were the chances that a farm boy from Reese could ever escape the monotony of farm life?
His father, Joseph Dewar blamed it all on his own brother, Billy, the boy’s uncle. If he’d never let him take Duncan to Saginaw to see that show. Dammit, why hadn’t he listened to the boy’s Mama?
* * *
Warm, fetid waves of scorching wind buffeted the dirty brown canvas walls of Speaker’s Show tent. Twilight dulled the patience of the audience. They expected more from their dime investment, kids just a nickel.
Now a dime doesn’t seem like much, five cents even less. But in this last year of the 19th century these were lordly sums. The country was just recovering from the latest financial panic, that of 1893. It had been preceded by those of: 1819, 1837, 1847, 1857, 1866, 1873, 1884 and 1890. The Panic of 1907 was just around the corner.
* * *
“Uncle Billy, when’s the show gonna start?”
Billy Dewar pulled out his pocket watch, pushed the stem. The cover flipped down baring his pride – one of the President Series crafted by the Standard Watch company of New York City. So far as he knew, it was the only one of its kind in these parts. He held it up so Duncan could see the time for himself, the last time either set eyes on it.
“Oh, boy! Just ten more minutes!”
“See you sit still, boy. Too many people here for your usual dancin’ ’round.”
“Aw, Uncle Billy. I’m just shufflin’ my feet. They’s feelin’ a tad jumpy.”
* * *
“Ladies and Gentlemen. You children, too. I’m Edward Speaker and this is my show.” Polite applause. Some apparently felt he was just a little too high on himself for their liking. “For the next two hours you are going to be dazzled by the greatest talent ever seen in this fine burg.”
Speaker spanned over 6 and a half feet from his black boots to his top hat. In between, the forty something raconteur wore black pants and a white ruffle-sleeved shirt topped by a navy blue ascot. His prominent Adam’s apple took up the space between the tie and the chin of his roundish face, the veined nose of a drinker the centerpiece between muttonchops and strong green eyes.
The audience quieted immediately he spoke. They’d paid good money and hearing him was worth the price of admission for some. Speaker’s reputation always preceded him aided by a pair of drummers blanketing the county with placards trumpeting the show.
Speaker knew these rubes needed more entertaining than they could afford. But the math just did not work out. The crowd numbering about ten score would generate only about $20. Each of the entertainers, except George, got a dollar. The band got three, the drummers a dollar apiece. The boys manning the popcorn machine shared two bits as did the girls ladling out the lemonade. That came
to $9.50. After paying for meals and transportation he cleared a few bucks six nights a week. Plus his cut from the refreshments. Plus his cut from the pickpockets who followed his show like stink follows manure.
Where Duncan endured Harmon and his dummy, George, followed by Goodrich’s lame jokes, his fellow watchers roared their approval, even giving them standing ovations. Speaker had seen it before, actually in every little town they played, the rustics liked humor but cared little for the true art of the dance. Saginaw was to be no different.
“Let’s have a big hand for Goodrich!” His plea was answered with a roll of thunderous applause. He did note one lone dissenter. A young boy, maybe nine or ten. Wasn’t there always one in every crowd?
He quickened behind the curtain to warn Vance to be careful and to keep it short. They were in Indian country.
Nodding to the Knickerbockers, he returned to the stage. The band played a soft interlude piece to calm the crowd. Hopefully, put them to sleep. “I want you to give everyone a chance to enjoy Starr and Vance so if you’ll hold your applause (and catcalls, which he did not say) until the conclusion of their performance. Without further ado, I give you . . . Starr and Vance!”
The Knickerbockers picked up the pace and the volume of the “Blue Danube Waltz” as the pair flowed onto the stage, twirling and swirling, oblivious to the ignorant stares of all, save but one. Duncan saw only two angels frolicking. Two graceful gazelles. The audience, Uncle Billy, even the orchestra billowed into the background, sharpening his focus on Starr and Vance. Following their every move. Each dip and twirl. Every new song brought further magic from the duo. He was sure that if ever he could come within a mile of their majesty he would be happy for the rest of his days. Of course, with no training and no mentor he had no chance, but he had his dream and refused to give it up without a fight.
* * *
“God damned generals!”
“What’s wrong, Sarge?”
“We’ve been ordered to take that ridge,” as he pointed to a high spot about a hundred yards distant. Its current owners, the German Army, seemed disinclined to give it up. They had been rebuffing the American’s efforts for the past week. Already, over fifty Doughboys had been killed or wounded. Probably as many Germans. And all for this little bit of France that in a few minutes would
know peace for the first time in over four years.
“Dewar, Johnson, Fillmore, Schwartz and Jiminez. Over here.”
The five men moved as slow as possible hoping that 11 o’clock would come before they had to carry out this stupid order. Time was not on their side. Sarge checked his watch. Ten minutes to 11. He knew he could not delay the attack any longer without putting himself and his stripes in jeopardy.
“Fix bayonets. On my signal, we go.” And under his breath “May God have mercy on our souls”.
He blew his whistle, took the lead in the attack. Nobody could ever fault him for shirking his duty! His men followed in a skirmish line keeping a few yards between each, hiding behind every twig of cover, hoping the Boche had been deaf to Sarge’s whistle, had not noticed their advance.
Probably the whistle was not Sarge’s best idea. But old habits die harder than he did. The Germans had plenty of bullets and grenades. They saw no reason to save the ordinance. There was nothing to save it for. The politicians had stabbed them in the back. Everyone said so.
Even the greenest Doughboy, Johnson, knew that twigs were poor stoppers of machine gun bullets. They did not do well with grenades, either.
Sarge checked his watch. Still six minutes to go. He signaled his men to hit the ground, make the smallest target possible. They laid in position, all in a row. Waiting to see what the Germans would do.
Seconds became minutes. Wilson was sweating in the November chill. Never had he felt such cold. Never had he wanted to live more than these final minutes before peace. What if he stood up and shouted to the Germans that it was all over? Surely they would hear him out. They wouldn’t want to die so close to living.
He burrowed among his memory cells searching for the German words that would save his life. Let’s see. “Alles” – well that means about the same as in English. “ist” did too. Now he needed “good”. Come on, Grandma, help me out here. He recalled giving her a gift and her responding “Das ist sehr gut”. That’s it! “Alles ist gut”. He repeated it several times before garnering the courage to rise and speak it aloud.
Duncan saw Johnson getting up. He whispered loudly for him to stay down. Johnson did not or would not hear. He was on his feet. His mouth practicing those three words. Words that would end this madness. Dewar had no choice. He raised up in a crouch, charged Johnson just as he rose above thebushes and shouted, “Alles ist gut! Alles ist…” before Duncan could take him down,
In that instant, purely out of instinct or malice, the Boche opened up with everything they had. Bullets shredded the foliage. Grenades dug ready-made graves. Duncan sprawled on Johnson who struggled to get up and stop the war.
Blackness. Silence. Death?
* * *
Duncan awoke at the 387th field hospital. Pain everywhere. People shouting, some crying. Everywhere the stench of blood, putrefied flesh, bowel movements. An orderly hustled by, noticed Duncan coming out of the anesthesia and hurried off to find the doctor.
* * *
Dr. Harris was fresh to battle. He still thought humor was the best medicine. If he only knew the damage he did. He did not follow the Hippocratic Oath, but the Hypocritic Oath. The men wanted to kill him,.
“Well, Duncan, how are you feeling?”
Duncan’s wired together jaw took care of his having to answer. Harris picked up Dewar’s chart and read it quickly. He noted the amputation was the worst of Duncan’s injuries. Time for the healing humor.
“Looks like your dancing career is over, my friend.”
The war had dumped the final bucket of rain on his dream, what little his father had not rooted out and stomped on.
* * *
In later years, Duncan was to assert that he could not remember even one joke or funny bit from Harmon, George or Goodrich. He’d been too mesmerized by Starr and Vance, like later generations were by Astaire and Rogers. All he held in his memory from that night was their swan-like gracefulness as they waltzed, foxtrotted and cha-cha’d their way into his brain, his goals, his life. Forevermore, he would shed a tear remembering.