When I walked into his room, I knew he was dying. His face looked gaunt, as if the muscles that once pulled a frown, and parted a smile chased by laughter had dried up. Yet, he managed a weak smile when he saw me in uniform.
As I approached the side of his bed, I smelled his death as if it clung to the air around him like an apparition, patiently awaiting its final embrace. The scent of it was different from combat death. In war, death is liquid red, raw flesh, shattered bone. It smelled as if life lingered, the passing soul shocked by the awareness that twenty was the totality of its years.
He spoke softly, greeted me, and sounded as if he truly felt happy I survived something I was not sure I cared to have survived.
Survival is not living, I wanted to tell him, but he would not have understood. On the other hand, if he had, he might have misconstrued my intent.
I took his frail hand, grasped it expecting the strength it once revealed, and found him unable to grip my fingers. When I was a boy, he would act as if he planned to crush my hand, squeezing enough to water my eyes. As a master carpenter, he wielded a hammer, and I watched in awe as he drove sixteen-penny nails into two by fours with three blows.
We spoke, innocuous subjects avoiding the past. While we did, my mind wandered. Two weeks earlier, I slept in a combat zone, discussed killing the enemy with the appreciation only a soldier might comprehend. Them or us, we knew. They used the cover of night, falling rain, and boldness to assault our sandbag lined shelters.
Gunfire, artillery rounds roared at 3a.m. like locomotives racing fifty feet overhead. The heated rounds ignited air molecules as they forced their bulk along a path destined to terminate fifteen or more lives.
Since I ordered the attack, I listed with headphones to the sound of incoming, heard the heated rounds whistling to the earth as if it was a movie. They exploded over the electronic sensors planted on an enemy infiltration trail through the jungle blasting the voices I had heard minutes earlier while they talked and laughed, the voices that alerted me that the enemy moved in our direction.
I listened to them die, died with them, roughly removed the headphones and realized I could no longer see the world I knew that afternoon. Nature's darkness quivered around me, the room's light, too, seemed to fade. With a shock-steadied hand, I lit a cigarette, stared into the flame, wondered why it did not extinguish when I blew on it.
His weak fingers found strength enough to close on mine as if even though he was dying, he understood the place I had just visited. I looked into his northern German blue eyes; saw him studying me with a wisdom I once wished I might share with a man from his generation.
Now, his words did not form, but then I no longer needed them. What flowed silently between us felt stronger, like a bond given from an older man to a younger man as had been done for a thousand generations. Warriors walked the same path, through the same history, and when we glanced over our shoulders, saw those who strode before us. The trail was a long narrow corridor of time strewn with the fallen.
He did not know, that I at twenty-one knew I was older than he was, at seventy-five.
Facing death in combat left me indifferent to death outside of the battlefield. I struggled to move into a civilian life, and never again spent time with him that passed more than a casual greeting.
He died three weeks to the day after I returned home, six or more months beyond the time his doctor told him he had left to live.
And, I mourn him still.