BREATHE WHILE DROWNING
By John Thomas Tuft
His wife called me late in the evening. Her profound infirmities kept her from getting to the hospital, could I please go and spend some time with her husband during his last hours. “He’s always telling me about you, Preacher Boy. He thinks so highly of you, he really enjoyed coming and talking to you all the time.” So, late at night, I find myself walking through the hushed hallways of the hospital, reflecting on my time knowing Pete. Plucked from a small town in West Virginia by the draft in World War Two, Pete went into the 506th of the USArmy, immortalized in the Band of Brothers book and HBO series of the same name. Pete is small, wiry, a bulwark of determination, smelling of Marlboros and cheap gin. “Preacher Boy, I ain’t offering no excuses, but when your life is filled with terrible pain, at some point you realize you have to breathe while drowning.”
After basic training and the required pitifully few parachute jumps, it was off to England to prepare for the big one, the invasion of France. “As the time for the invasion drew near, we all knew in our bones that we were dead men,” Pete said one day, sitting with me on the steps of the Post Office, puffing away on the ever-present cigarette. “That’s the secret, Preacher Boy. Knowing ahead of time that you’re a dead man. Don’t matter what you do, just take care of each other, and keep moving. We were coming to kill or be killed, no sugar coating.” He tapped me on the knee. “That’s why before we boarded those planes, we boxed up our shadows and shipped them home. Let people remember us the way they wanted to.” He looked off in the distance. “Nobody wants to know what blood and piss and cordite smell like or what the sound of boys out there in the hell of shellbursts and tracers, wounded and crying for their mommas all night until they die, sounds like.”
“They dropped us all over damnation. A few of us found each other in the dark and stumbled across a captain who took charge. But then we found one of my buddies. Parachuted into a tree, broke his back and got run through by a branch. He’s up there screaming and hollering. There’s Germans all around. The captain asked for a volunteer to take care of him before we all got killed. I went up the tree with just my knife, Preacher Boy.” His voice lowered to barely a whisper, more of a gasp. “I took care of it.” The old collie dog that followed him everywhere let out a mournful whine. The demons threatening to drown him demanded their due and he shambled off to drink until he could breathe again.
Another time he told me of the horrors of the winter in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. “I ain’t ever been so cold in all my born days.” He quickly changed the subject and dug some black and white photos out of his pocket. “That’s me in the Eagles’ Nest, Hitler’s resort up in the mountains.” A young man with haunted eyes stared back at me from the cold lair. The horror drew him back, unrelentingly, to the frozen Ardennes . “The Germans used artillery on us in the forest, it was like it would never end, day and night. The shells would explode up in the treetops, trying to use the trees to kill us, if the cold didn’t get us first. Poor bastard in the next hole took a direct hit one night. Preacher Boy, I stuck my hands in his open chest to try and get my hands warm.” He stood up, gasping and wheezing. “Pray for me, won’t you?” he pleaded.
Pete made it back, but he never came home. He married, worked in the mill until the drinking got the better of him. A trail of petty crimes and misdeeds led to nowhere. Townspeople eventually shunned him, one by one. Churches did not want a drunk bringing his dog to worship. “Millions of good men made it home. God only knows how many of them are trying to breathe while drowning,” he pondered before going off to buy birdseed. “I put out sunflower seeds for the redbirds, Preacher Boy. The cardinals don’t know anything about what I done, who I am. They eat, and sing, and fly away, knowing old Pete will have seed for them whenever it snows.”
I arrive at his hospital room and pull a chair close to sit beside him. Imposing machines wheeze and whirl as his lungs fight the fluids of emphysema. He is drowning. I take his hand as he struggles to breathe against the approaching tide. I whisper that his wife sends her love and caring. He stirs. “She’ll see to the birds,” I add. Time slips away, minute by minute. His breathing slows and I wipe the sweat from his brow. “Rest easy now, Pete. Rest well. Your shadow is welcoming you home.” As he slips away I sense something at the window. I look up. A bright red cardinal looks in, as though waiting. Then with a nod, he flies away.
Words are magic and writers are wizards.