by Matt Hardman
“Ain’t this a little…uh…dangerous?”
“Not at all. Look at these beams. Gotta be almost a foot thick.”
Private O’Malley looked around. Unsure.
“But Sarge…Ain’t the Germans just up the road?”
“They are. Listen O’Malley. I’ve been doing this since Normandy with nary a scratch. Not even a scuff. Trust me. A shelter like this is exactly what the field manual calls for.”
O’Malley still looked unsure. Sergeant Sharp turned his head, looking at the young soldier, shifting to his teaching voice.
“Private, you ever read United States Army Field Manual Five Fifteen?”
O’Malley shook his head. “No Sarge.”
“Well O’Malley, this shelter is what the manual calls a ‘hasty fortification’. That’s when you concentrate the bulk of the force on those things which most increase the defensive strength of the position.”
O’Malley blinked. Sharp went on.
“Look around. Most of the work was done by pure luck, but when we dug in here, under these timbers and behind this wall, we moved the big pieces to fill in the gaps in the timbers. Damn near eye-level as we sit.”
O’Malley looked around again, assessing their little fort. Sharp and O’Malley had spent most of the morning burrowing their way under a thick row of half-burnt roof timbers heaped against the only standing concrete wall of a ruined building. The two of them sat, almost completely hidden, in a pile of debris and rubble that, only days before, had been a department store.
“Did you memorize the field manual?”
Sharp just chuckled, smiling at the younger man.
“Want a smoke O’Malley?”
“A smoke. A cigarette. Want one?”
“Suit yourself. I’ve got Lucky Strikes this time, not those garbage Raleigh’s.”
“Yeah. You look okay. Sittin’ there jumpin’ and twitchin’ like that.”
Sharp dug through the pockets of his tattered, olive drab uniform. He muttered as he searched, “Now where’d I put those damn things?”
“Put what Sarge?”
Sharp looked up briefly, realized he’d been talking audibly.
“The smokes kid. The smokes. Too many pockets. Too much stuff. Looky here.”
O’Malley looked as Sharp began emptying the half-dozen pockets and pouches on his uniform.
Two spare clips of ammo and a pocket-knife were produced from one pocket. A wad of letters and writing paper from another.
“Nice knife Sarge.”
“What? Oh. Dad gave it to me. Just before I shipped to Toccoa.”
“My dad gave me one too. Had it confiscated during training. Contraband.”
Sharp laughed and began stuffing everything back in the first two pockets, began searching two more. O’Malley just looked on as the next pocket produced some parachute cord and the stub of a pencil.
“What’s the cord for?”
“Mostly just to have some string. Real useful. Makeshift clotheslines. String up your blanket like a tent.”
“Also keep some from each jump. Might be nice to have when I’m old.”
“Ah. That makes sense.”
“You jumped yet O’Malley?”
“You jumped yet?”
“Not since training.”
“That’s a shame. It ain’t the same when you jump from a tailgate.”
O’Malley started to respond, but the smacking noise of several bullets striking the timbers distracted him. Sharp looked up, glanced at O’Malley, watched the young soldier flinch and jump as round after round chipped away at the wood and concrete fortress. Sharp shrugged and resumed searching for his cigarettes, unconcerned with the fighting nearby.
“Relax O’Malley. They ain’t trying to kill you. Everyone is just putting on a show. The war’s practically over.”
“Right Sarge.” The voice trembled, damn near breaking.
Sharp found his pack of Lucky’s. He pulled one out and lit it with a match, the smell of burning sulfur mixing with the scent of cordite and dirt. He looked at O’Malley. The kid’s eyes were as big as dinner plates and he was breathing quickly, nearly hyperventilating. While Sharp’s hand held only the thin cigarette, O’Malley’s hands clutched his rifle, his knuckles white.
“Seriously O’Malley. Relax. We’re just here cleaning up and the Jerries are just shooting to keep heads down. Saving face.”
“It’s a lot of shooting.” O’Malley’s voice trembled and the death-grip on the rifle’s worn, wooden stock endured.
Sharp chuckled, the burning cigarette hanging loosely out of the corner of his mouth. He shook his head.
“O’Malley, this ain’t a lot of shooting. Normandy was a lot of shooting. Holland was a lot of shooting. Bastogne was a whole bunch of shooting.”
“Seems like a lot.” Still a tremor in the voice, the firm grasp on the rifle continued.
Willie waved his hand in the general direction of the shooting.
“That ain’t nothing.”
Across the street, an artillery shell crashed into a church, sending bricks and mortar flying. A roiling cloud of dust crossed the street, entering the shelter and coating both soldiers with fresh dirt. The bell, freed from the steeple, fell to the ground with a cacophonous ringing that reverberated in their ears and chests. Willie glanced at O’Malley, watched the young private shift nervously, could see that he wasn’t convinced.
“O’Malley. What did you do before the war?”
“Before all this. Back in the states. What did you do?”
“Oh. High school.”
“High school. I was a school teacher you know.”
O’Malley turned, temporarily distracted. Sharp kept talking.
“Yeah. Taught for about three years before the war. What was your favorite subject?”
“I dunno…history?” The voice was trembling less now. The grip on the rifle relaxed ever so slightly.
“What about music class?”
O’Malley raised an eyebrow. The quavering in his voice gone for the moment.
“Yeah. Band. Orchestra. Like that. You like those?”
“I was a music teacher. Taught band and orchestra.”
“I heard that.”
“You never played an instrument?”
“No. Played basketball and baseball.”
“Waste of time. Music’s where its at. I played the piano. All the way through college. Should have played professionally.”
O’Malley jumped as several more bullets smacked into the wooden beam inches from his head. He resumed his death-grip on the rifle and the quiver returned to his voice.
“S-s-sarge. I think the shooting’s gettin’ closer.”
O’Malley was fidgeting again, squirming, fingers flexing. Jaw clenched. Sharp went on, unbothered by the noise and danger.
“Ignore it. Now…seriously. Never played the piano? Ever?”
“W-what? No.” O’Malley stuttered his incredulity.
“Oh, the piano is where it’s at O’Malley.”
Willie began expounding on the wonders of the piano, a discourse that he’d clearly thought about and practiced for a long time. He went on about the history of the piano, listing the great pieces and works. He was about to run off a list of the world’s truly great piano players when he turned to O’Malley. The kid was staring at him, jaw hanging open, eyes wide.
“Sarge…I heard a story about you.”
“A story. About you at Bastogne.”
“Oh. What’s the story?”
“Some of the guys say that you spent the entire battle in your foxhole, playing an imaginary piano?”
Willie laughed, took a last drag of the cigarette and put it out in the dirt. He shook his head, smiling. O’Malley persisted.
“Is it true?”
“Hell yes, it’s true. Gotta stay sharp for when the war’s over.”
Sharp saw the kid’s jaw drop again.
“O’Malley, why do you keep looking at me like that?”
“Wait. You guys were surrounded by Germans. In the middle of all that you just sat there pretending to play the piano?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“You’re putting me on.”
“Nope. Do it all the time.”
“Gotta practice. Gotta stay sane.”
Sharp watched as O’Malley repeated the words, again looking incredulous. The battle was, again, temporarily forgotten.
“Gotta stay sane.”
“Sure. Gotta keep the mind active. If you dwell on all of this…”
Willie stopped in mid-sentence, the hand that he’d been waving in the general direction of the battle frozen in mid-air.
Willie wasn’t moving. He just laid there, propped up against the pile of rubble and staring out of the shelter. His suspended hand finally moved, lowering to one of the timbers as he leaned forward. He could feel O’Malley trying to lean around him.
“Will you look at that?”
“Sarge. What are you talking about?”
“How did it get there?”
“How’d what get there? What’s beautiful?”
“What the hell?”
“It’s a piano O’Malley.”
Willie’s voice was whimsical, airy.
“I know what it is. What’s the big deal?”
“It’s just a piano.”
“O’Malley, that ain’t just a piano. It’s an Eighty-eight Steinway Upright. I learned to play on a piano just like that one. Look at it, O’Malley. Coffee black. Thin gold lettering. Freshly polished. Not a speck of dust.”
Despite the wanton destruction surrounding the piano, the instrument sat there, gleaming in the pale sunlight.
“Sarge, there’s been a piano in the street in every town for the past five weeks.”
“And you don’t find that odd?”
“They’re taunting me.”
“They’re taunting me. Think about it, O’Malley. I’ve been at this since June of forty-four and they haven’t got me yet. Hell, only the lieutenant has been with George Company longer and he’s been wounded twice. Me? Not a scratch.”
“What the hell does that have to do with anything?!”
“Ain’t it clear? It’s a trap. They’re trying to get me.”
“Trying to get you?”
Sergeant Sharp wasn’t listening now. He’d turned back to the piano. He was stroking his chin, scratching at the scruffy hairs encompassing his jawline. He started mumbling to himself.
“What if it’s in trouble? It could be wounded.”
“Not now O’Malley. I’m thinking.”
Sharp resumed his train of thought, oblivious to O’Malley’s nervous fidgeting.
“I should do something. It’s probably hurt. Bet those sons-a-bitches stripped the wires. Bastards!”
Sharp turned to see O’Malley squirming towards the shelter’s exit.
“O’Malley, where are you going.”
O’Malley stopped. “Uh. Going for help Sarge.”
“No time Private. We can handle this.”
As O’Malley wriggled back into his place, a singularly loud crack echoed down the street. A bullet had struck the piano. Sharp bolted from the shelter.
The silence in those first moments was deafening. Shooting stopped during the first fifty yards of Willie’s mad dash, as if the appearance of an actual target to shoot at had surprised the Germans who, at this point, were only shooting to keep the Americans’ heads down. The last fifty yards of Willie’s scramble was amid a hail of not-so-deadly gunfire from troops that were understandably rattled by Willie’s sudden appearance. As O’Malley watched, Willie slid to a halt behind the piano.
Sergeant Sharp found one of the legs of the piano splintered from the impact of a bullet. Whipping a bandage from his own medical kit, he quickly dressed the wound. Once the bandage was securely in place, Willie fished the small, battered box that held his morphine syrette out of a pocket. He looked at it for a second and then put it back in his kit, mumbling.
“Pianos don’t need morphine.”
A thought popped into Willie’s head as he leaned against the wounded instrument, sweating, his chest heaving.
“Probably ought to make sure its okay.”
Willie’s hand reached up and pressed a few keys and a broad smile etched its way across Willie’s face.
The first notes Willie played rang out softly, almost drowned out by the constant noise of battle. Willie heard them though. He smiled. The piano seemed to be properly tuned. He pressed a few more. Those sounded right. He kept pressing keys, checking each, making sure the piano was only superficially injured. Everything sounded in order.
“Maybe just one tune.”
Willie reached up from his squatting position and began playing. First one hand, then the other. After a few bars, Sergeant Sharp extended his legs and stood almost fully erect at the piano. He looked around, smiled, and launched off on a tune.
The jazzy refrain of Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000” flowed from the piano as Willie began to dance behind it. He looked over to the shelter and yelled.
“O’Malley! Get out here boy!”
Sharp did not see O’Malley move. He yelled again.
“O’Malley! Sing brother! You know the words!”
Willie played on, looking around. Behind him, he saw the occasional American, their helmet covered heads poking out here and there. In front of him, he saw the occasional German, heads and eyes peering out of windows and doors. An idea popped into Willie’s head and he switched to Brahms.
Sergeant Sharp played on, for most of an hour. Ahead of him, remnants of the German Army seemed to be enjoying his little show. Behind him, the reaction was hit or miss. A few of his fellow soldiers had been shouting requests and Willie had obliged. He played The Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and Bing Crosby’s “Hawaii Calls”, all while ignoring shouts from Lieutenant Miller to get the hell away from the piano.
Just as Willie was shifting to some Beethoven, some shouting from the German lines distracted him. He looked up in time to see a curious sight. A lone soldier was standing in a doorway, arm extended towards Willie and the piano. In the air, a stick with one large, cylindrical end twirled and twisted its way towards the piano. Willie cocked his head, not recognizing the object for what it was. He heard O’Malley’s voice yelling.
Two months later, O’Malley entered a hospital room. Pale sunlight flooded into the room through windows bordered with flowing linen curtains. A crisp breeze floated in, bringing the dusty scent of an afternoon rain shower in the making.
In the room was a single bed, unoccupied and neatly made. Next to the bed, in a chair turned to face the window, sat Sergeant Willie Sharp. O’Malley walked around the end of the bed, narrowly avoiding smacking his bandaged arm on one of the bedposts. Sharp didn’t turn to greet him. O’Malley stood for a second, waiting for Sharp to acknowledge him before reaching out and touching Willie’s shoulder.
Willie jumped and turned, a startled look on his face that quickly disappeared. He smiled broadly and picked up a small chalkboard from his lap. He scrawled on it in white chalk.
O’Malley leaned over, grabbed a piece of chalk and wrote.
“Hi Sarge. How are you?”
The board was erased quickly with a dusty cloth.
“Good. Arm hurts like hell.”
“Grenades will do that.”
O’Malley chuckled as Willie erased the board again.
Willie looked up at O’Malley. O’Malley smiled and wrote again.
“It’s really okay. Just a scratch.”
Sergeant Sharp nodded, erasing the board. Willie reached over and wrote.
“Is it true? You’re deaf.”
O’Malley watched as Willie wrote. Willie held the board up, grinning broadly.
“Yep. Like Beethoven.”