a story in response to a prompt. the prompt was “pencil”
Armistice Day, 2010
It wasn’t too long ago that there were more of us, a lot more, but as time goes by, our numbers have dwindled. George, Bill and I are, I think, the last ones — the last of the 2nd Infantry, the Fighting Tikes. Even though we had a reputation of being the World’s Best, our rallying cry was still “We’re No. 2 and We Try Harder.” We were damned proud.
I remember the first day that we all met, up in Fort Ticonderoga, New York. One hundred and ninety-two fresh young boys, sharp, neat, all naked as a stump, all lined up like we were in a box. Training was hard — our numbers cut in half by the end of basic. Those men were able to go home to their families, play golf, bowl, or volunteer as lay ministers in the church, though they never found the glory of fighting the in the big one. They just died steadily, one day at a time. I remember this recruit named Josiah Pew. He washed out on the last day and went to the lay ministry. It was said that he recorded more pledges than any other Fighting Tike recruit.
In basic training, they shaved us and ground us down — the drill sergeants called it sharpening — until we were 96 polished, gleaming and sharp men of Ft. Ticonderoga’s Second Infantry, the Fighting Tikes. Our haircuts, all matching square-tops, showed off our sun drenched pink skin. Lined up in our yellow dress uniforms with their silver dress collars, we all looked straight and true, ready to box up and ship to the front lines.
The commandant’s speech, as they loaded us up, was moving. I remember his voice across the scratchy megaphone saying: “Your adversary is no paper tiger. His sheets are full of tough fibers and, although he may be a bit ‘off white’ in your opinion, don’t underestimate his strength or resiliency. The enemy has shown an uncanny ability to wear men down, to make them dull, to suck the lead out of their belly. Each of you remember — keep your heads, aim twice and draw once, and give ’em all the lead we have.”
The trip was grueling. Ninety-six of us were packed, shoulder to shoulder in this rectangular room that we called “the box.” On one side, the 3rd company of Musgrave Carpenters, the engineering division that would be responsible for building bridges (and blowing them up). These guys were wide-bodied and muscular, smaller in number in their “box,” but they sure packed it in. Mostly kept to themselves, though — rumor had it that they weren’t all that good at correcting errors and, therefore, stayed pretty sober during the trip.
On the other side was a division from India, the “Nataraj Privateers.” They were a strange sight to us. The coloreds back home, were always mixed together — black, red, yellow, blue, brown. They never got well organized and we never let them mix with us — we wanted to keep our lead pure. And you would never have seen them with weapons — no, that would never have happened.
But these guys were different. They were uniformly brown in tone — all colored, all together, all armed and all sketching strange things. At first, they were frightening. After all, except for the couple of us from the plantation south, we never saw a group of one-color colored together, and never saw coloreds with a gun or knife in their hand, sharpened and ready for battle.
Boy, those guys were strange, too. Their uniforms were bright red and they chatted kind-of-in English, but wrote in this weird looking stuff. Their food smelled really funny — but strangely, it tasted pretty good. No meat, they said, but I kinda grew a shine to it even though most of it swam in this inky-black liquid. Strange how one can adapt.
We hoped that we wouldn’t be bivouacked near them. We figured that the enemy could smell this stuff from miles away. If they knew which way the wind blew and knew how hard it was blowing, the enemy could pour lead into them from a good distance. That was, at least, one bullet that the Fighting Tikes dodged.
Two weeks later, we got off that damned boat. We did our best to stay sharp, but being cooped up, shoulder to shoulder for so long, dulled us up pretty well. I can still remember the smell — boy did we STINK. We knew that we’d need more sharpening when we got there — but we were really happy to get out of that box.
A couple of days after we arrived at our base, our new commander, Major Dixon, walked in. Dixon was an experienced leader, dapper, trim, well dressed and well spoken. He stood at the front of our room, looking in, giving no indication of his thoughts. Were we a sorry group of losers who would break under stress or would we go on to write history? He was as poker-faced as they come.
Dixon began speaking…
”I’ve led thousands of you in for Uncle Sam. All Beginners when they first land on shore, then shortly thereafter, growing into Cadets, coalescing finally into units of Anglo-Saxons, Concords, Eldorados, Metropolitans, Orioles, and yes, Ticonderogas. Some of you won’t make it out — you’ll get chewed up, broken, worn away, you’ll make mistakes and loose your head fixing them. But I ask each of you to look to your left and to your right and pledge to give your life to save those next to you. If you each do that, I can guarantee that the great majority of you will make it back home and be able to help out at businesses, schools and hospitals.”
A thunderous applause followed.
A week later we got our first call to the front. All clean and shiny, we went marching onto the train that was to take us there. Even though we looked, we carefully avoided seeing those returning from the front. I can still remember the broken, the headless, the chewed up. At the time, we didn’t want a moment of doubt so we all tried hard to put them out of our minds and think about kicking the enemy in their shafts. We disembarked after twelve hours on the train and entered the fight. At that moment, we believed in what we were doing — there was an enemy in front of us that was evil incarnate. Today, ninety years later, those losses seem like they may have been so pointless.
We marched in to the fight. Immediately, Johnson got hit in the mid-section, nearly breaking him in two. Then several on the very front line stumbled back with fear capturing their faces, cracked, bent, worn down, screaming as their lead was breaking. It was our turn. We started pushing hard, re-writing the front line and dealing the enemy a severe body blow. We literally chewed them up. Michaels and the group on my left flank erased any resistance they could find. At the end of the battle, the lines were redrawn, resistance was broken and erased, and we established camp within the safe circumference that we believed was formed by the protector. We had suffered six casualties, only one of them serious. We were ready to pound them with more lead!
That night there was a big change. The enemy brought in a new division, from Faber-Castell we heard, and began a relentless onslaught. We couldn’t believe how fast the lead was coming — it felt like we were outnumbered a hundred to one. Their’s were smaller arms, as hard as we were, but so much greater in number. It was raining, no pouring, lead and the storm continued all night. The thunder of guns, the lightening of tracers, and this relentless downpour of deadly rain. We lost another dozen Fighting Tikes. We fell back, taking our broken and chewed up with us. We were dazed and confused, our senses dulled by the relentless, intense and heavy counterattack.
The next division, the Eldorados, fared no better. True, they were mostly artists that were conscripted into this man’s army, but they were now soldiers. But they were no match for the downpour of death, and were chewed up just like we were. On the train ride back, we could barely speak — we were all in shock, sitting together, tired, beaten, bruised and vanquished, wondering what hit us and why it wasn’t chasing us. We arrived in camp in far worse shape than those we saw when we went to the front. Now, we envied those guys as we stumbled, bleeding and haggard, to our camp.
During our recovery, they put me in Major Dixon’s attache. He was called into the meeting along with all of the other senior officers. I remember it like yesterday. There was a lot of hushed conversations. Were we going to give up? Were we going to retreat? What about our allies? The meeting was called to order.
General Primo walked to the front of the room and began addressing the officers.
“Good afternoon, men. As you are painfully aware, something has changed with the enemy. The balance has shifted and they seem to have increased their fighting power ten fold. But intelligence has seen no particular increase in the enemy’s fighting numbers.
“Rumors from the front, partially confirmed by our agents, were that the enemy has developed a new kind of weapon and has unleashed it upon us. A mechanized weapon that can fire loads of lead without wearing down or losing its point. We committed some special forces resources to capture one of these mechanized devices.
“Two weeks ago, good fortune struck us as a company of enemy combatants accidentally walked into our stronghold. After a quick battle, we overran them, capturing five of them. We were able to study them, learn their strengths and weaknesses and provide you with intel on how to defeat them.
“These are the newest enemy weapons, they are mechanized, quickly reloadable, and accurate — their strengths. However, they are not as sharp as our best troops, they require reloads frequently, jam regularly and break easily, and their mechanisms are prone to loosening and jamming. This is an enemy that can be defeated.”
Over the next several weeks our tactics changed. Instead of marching in looking for our direct opposition, we sent in guerrilla teams to foul the air and grease — to begin the process of destabilizing this new enemy — the Mechicans. We destroyed several of their ammunition dumps and their spare part depot. It worked.
Their fire — once long, deafening barrages — turned into short, sporadic exchanges. The Mechican’s sophistication was also their weakness, and they were defeated by good old fashioned smarts — and good bit of mud and dirt. The tide turned for us and six months later, they collapsed.
We all went home, heroes. Paper, once sheets containing the balances of the companies of New York, were chopped into tiny pieces, too small to write on, and rained down on us like the lead did nine months ago. This time, it felt amazingly good. Those of us who were broken, chewed up, or worn down were treated especially well, and were given comfortable retirements in jars, cans and cups nationwide. It was a great day to be a veteran — no, it was a great year to be a veteran.
All of us quickly found jobs — in accounting, in drafting, in journalism, in art. We were able to use our bodies and our brains pretty much equally, and lived as one of America’s greatest generations for a while.
But time marched on, and soon, the manual skills that we were so good at became mechanized, reliable and inexpensive. People got tired of having to keep us sharp — it could be a messy job. Plus, those same Indians from the Nataraj group learned skills and were able to do them for a lot cheaper. New devices allowed them to send their own handiwork back and forth quickly — and still cost near nothing. And then there were the Mechicans — they came in and started taking things over.
During the war, we were able to beat the Mechicans because we were simple and full of lead — we didn’t jam, we didn’t melt down and we were as tough as a thick shaft. Back then, Mechican meant flimsy, easy to break, easy to defeat once you knew the trick. But they developed the Mechicans with really hard work, and they got a lot better — in war and at work — and all of a sudden, things that could only have been done by us were being done by machines. Sure, the people who understood the machines did well, but those of us who did what the machines did — well we were quickly replaced by those damned Mechicans.
And the young ones — they stopped needing us, instead punching things onto keyboards great and small. They even forgot cursive and shorthand, two of the skills that had kept us relevant for years. Our lucky ones stayed nearby and continued to have occasional value — we taught small children how to write and were still around for some artists. Others found themselves banished to dark drawers, boxes, or cups overflowing with strangers that we didn’t know or like too much. And unlike the old days, we’d get thrown in with old colored ones and the old Mechicans. No more order, no more purity in our lead.
Every year, at Armistice Day, our numbers get smaller. Not only that, but we all seem to shrink, some in the head, some in the body, and some both. Turns out that the chewing up that happened rapidly during those glorious, terrifying days continued through life, although more slowly, dragging out the pain and agony.
Sure, I’ve gotten to see my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and that has been a blessing. But they are so different. I know, my son married into the BiC family, but I hardly expected that he would turn his back, completely, on his roots and try to join the BiC Click. As they say, you can take the pencil out of the lead, but you can’t take the lead out of the pencil. But looking at him, you’d think he had gel for blood.
And my grandkids? They needed to be coddled — may as well be made of felt. But they were no where near as tough as we were — they dry, and crack easily. And their mark on this world dissolves in water. And the great grandkids? Buttons on a board, short, squat — never seeing the light of day or the great outdoors. Progress. I hate goddamned progress.
It is strange being one of the last ones standing. Long life brings loneliness, pain and death, and unlike the battlefield, it brings it slowly, deliberately, mercilessly. You miss the ones you haven’t seen for a long time, then realize they are gone. You miss people until you run out of people to miss.
The acute pains of war wounds are replaced with the endless aches and pains of age. Vision is clouded, not by the smoke of a thousand fires, but by the smoke in one’s own eyes. Sound fades behind silence, much like it faded behind the thunder of cannons. One’s sharpness is gone, replaced by fragility and a dull feeling of imprecision. You shrink, until your toes and your head are almost one. Yes, life is like a war that can’t be one, only it happens over decades.
Soon, the light will go out on our generation. Soon, George, Bill and I will be gone. Nobody will remember the taste of the mud, saturated with blood, that we lived in. Nobody will remember the feeling of a well-drawn line, a neatly-written account book, a beautifully-written letter. Nobody will remember the stench of burning wood, lead and paint as it floats across the trenches.
Memories will be relegated to static-ky films, grainy photographs, and written accounts. But other things, particularly smells, tastes and textures, will be gone forever. Ninety-six straight and true Fighting Tikes, ninety-six broken, chewed up and spent old instruments of war and peace, will be forgotten. No one will remember. No one.