Holiday Journey 14

“Over here,” Roy said, and the four of them piled into an ambulance.  They headed out toward the front, and Chris had yet to say a word.  Mary sniffed, but pulled a cap from her backpack.  It had a big red cross on it.  She had two arm bands that also showed a red cross.  Without being asked, Chris helped tie the arm bands around her upper arms. Then they sat, like a couple of rag dolls, tossed by every bump in the road, but never opening their mouths.

When the ambulance came to a stop, as the sun started to set, they came to the trenches. Plum, Roy, and Chris got escorted one way, and belatedly, Chris noticed Merry got taken off in a different direction.

“I don’t want to lose her,” Chris said.

“Good to hear you say,” Plum spoke right up.  “I’ll tell her you said that.”

“No. Yes.  You know what I meant.”

“Yes I do,” Plum said, though Chris could not be sure if the man, or elf really knew.

“Welcome to the front lines,” a sergeant said, in a heavy cockney accent.  “I am Sergeant Digby.”  He showed them first where they could relieve themselves. Then he brought them into a dugout bunker where some cots lined the wall.  “You’ll be resting here tonight.”  He put four trays of some kind of food on the table that had six seats around it.  The table also had four cups, but nothing to fill them.  “Keep the lights in the bunker so some German sniper doesn’t see and draw a bead on your head.  We are not expecting a blow tomorrow, but you never know what the Germans might have in mind, even if it is Christmas Day.  Sorry the accommodations aren’t better.  We haven’t had many newspaper people up here.  Colonel says we need to treat you as well as we can, but let you get a real look at life in these god-awful trenches.”  The Sergeant quickly came to attention, and saluted when another man entered the dugout.

“At ease Sergeant,” the man said, as he dropped a pack on one of the cots.

“This here is Lieutenant Smith,” the sergeant introduced the new man.  “He’s been assigned to act as your liaison for tonight and tomorrow.”

“I was wondering who the other meal was for,” Chris said.  “Lieutenant,” He reached to shake the man’s hand.

“Lef-tenant,” the man responded.

“Christopher Shepherd, American,” Plum said, with a thumb point at Chris.

“Oh,” the lieutenant and sergeant both sounded like that explained everything.

“One question,” Chris needed to ask.  “Where is Merry?  The red cross worker that came with us?”

“The woman?” the Sergeant asked for clarification.

“She is at the little hospital bunker we set up at the rear of the line, I am sure,” the lieutenant said.  “They do what they can for the wounded to comfort and prepare them for transport to the rear and real medical facilities.  Don’t worry.  She will be fine.”

“His fiancé,” Plum said, with another thumb jerk in Chris’ direction.

“Is not,” Chris protested, and paused a second before he added, “I haven’t asked her yet.”

The sergeant, lieutenant, and Roy all smiled for him, and the lieutenant spoke. “She will be well taken care of, no worries, Mister Shepherd.”

“I must go, get back up to the line, and all that,” Sergeant Digby told his commanding officer.

“Merry Christmas,” Chris said, wanting to distract himself from his thoughts about Merry.

“Happy Christmas to you,” the sergeant said, smiled, saluted, and left.  The others sat and had a fine supper.  Then, no one stayed up late.

In the morning before dawn, Chris went to relieve himself, and he heard what sounded like singing in the dark.  Drawn to the sound, he wound through the trenches until he reached the most forward position.  The soldiers there were singing Silent Night, and the Germans across the way were echoing with Stille Nacht.

Despite the warning, Chris poked his head above the edge of the trench.  The soldiers did not know what to do.  Being a civilian, they could not exactly order him to keep his head down.

Chris squinted in the dim light before dawn.  He saw a small group of men standing in the field that served as no-man’s land between the trenches.  They appeared to be talking.  He thought he recognized Sergeant Digby in that group.  One private poked his head up beside Chris and commented.

“Maybe we will have a temporary truce, it being Christmas and all.  Whad’ja think?”

As the sunlight cracked the sky, Chris, grabbed the tin of cookies the soldier was enjoying, slipped the white handkerchief out of the pocket of the soldier on the other side, and climbed out of the trench altogether before anyone could stop him.  To be honest, he acted out of ignorance of war and killing more than inspiration and courage.  But he did think that men should not kill each other, at least, and especially on Christmas day.

The two privates followed him, concerned about their stuff.  One said no guns, so they both laid down their rifles while Chris raised his hands, waved his white flag, and tried singing.

“O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,

Wei grun sind deine Blatter!

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,

Wei grun sind deine Blatter!

“Nein, nein,” Chris heard the response right away from the German line, and a big German corporal climbed his own ladder, put his hands up, and corrected the only line in German Chris knew.  “Wei Treu sind deine Blatter!”

“You sing it,” Chris said quickly, as two more Germans crawled out of the trench, and laid their rifles down in imitation of the British.  “Please.  Bitte.”

The man sang, a clean and fine baritone, while Chris at first, and then the corporal, walked toward each other.  He just about finished the song when Chris and the corporal met in the middle. Chris held out the tin.

“Christmas Cookie?”

The corporal smiled broadly.  “Danke.”

“Merry Christmas,” Chris said, and he said the same as he gave cookies to the two soldiers that followed their corporal out of the trench.  Then he turned and walked boldly up to the group in the center, his two privates following him like faithful puppy dogs. The men there had long since stopped talking in order to stare.  Chris did not hesitate.

“Christmas cookie,” he offered to the German soldier who smiled and said thank you is reasonable English.  He turned to the German sergeant, and the man looked ready to grab a handful when his Captain interrupted.

“Ein.”

The sergeant took one.  When Chris turned to the captain, he said, “Got any schnapps?”  The captain slowly smiled, and the British captain turned immediately to his trench and shouted.

“Willoughby.”

“Sir.”

“Fetch the brandy.  The good one I keep hidden in my duffle.”

“Sir?”

“And no weapons,” Chris said.

The captain did not hesitate.  “And no weapons,” he shouted.

The German captain said “Brandy,” but it sounded like he was not impressed.  He turned to his own line and shouted a series of instructions to his men.  Chris could not follow all that German, but he did hear the word schnapps several times. It seemed a prominent part of whatever the officer said.  When the man turned back to face the group, he found the British captain holding out his hand.

“Merry Christmas,” the captain said.

The German captain shook that hand, and responded in English, “Merry Christmas.”

“And a Happy New Year,” Chris said.  Both captains looked at him, so he felt it necessary to explain.  “I have no vested interest.  I am an American.”

Both captains mouthed “Oh,” as if that explained it all.

It did not take long for soldiers on both sides to start coming out, unarmed.  By noon, people all up and down the line were exchanging presents, sharing food and smokes, sharing letters from home, playing games, and generally enjoying the Christmas spirit.  Chris had no idea how long the truce might last, but he felt glad that at least on one day, they had Peace on Earth.

Plum and Roy found Chris early in the morning.  They kept up their disguise of being newspaper reporters, and Roy took plenty of pictures.  Merry found her way to the field by lunchtime, bringing tea and biscuits, as she called them, for all.  It felt like a good day, but there was one sour note.

One German, apparently egged on by one of his own red cross workers, produced a handgun. He pointed it at some British soldiers and made threatening noises.  Merry saw and shouted.  Chris ran up and stepped into the middle.

“No, no, no,” he said, in as soft and calm voice as he could muster.  “Nein.”

“Weihnachtstag,” Merry said, as she arrived to stand with Chris.  “Frieden heute.”

The man began to cry.  He dropped the gun and Merry hugged him.  Chris looked at the German Red Cross worker, but she turned to walk off.  Apparently, she laughed, and in that sound, and from her appearance, Chris could only imagine Courtney.”

Before sundown, Chris, Plum, Roy, and Merry made their way to well behind the British lines.  A food truck there just dropped off Christmas dinners for the troops.  It headed back to the train depot where it dropped off the foursome and picked up another load for the front.  Plum led them to a hotel in the town.  Plum checked them into rooms while Roy got them a table in the restaurant.  Over a fine meal, they discussed things they saw that day.  They laughed plenty, and cried a little over the whole idea of war.

Finally, Plum said they had a train to catch early in the morning.  “Just what they call a continental breakfast tomorrow, on the way back to the station.”

“Fine,” Chris said, and added the only anxious note of the day.  “Tomorrow is Thursday back home.  Maybe we can catch Lilly tomorrow, or, at least…are we getting close?”

Roy spoke before Plum could come up with an encouraging lie.  “She is more than a day away, but we have caught up some.”  He turned his head away from the table.  He did not want to look Merry or Plum in the eye.

Plum finally said, “We should go up.”  He stood, so they all stood.  Chris, who had not said anything directly to Merry all day, did not walk beside her to the elevator, and did not look at her in the elevator, though she looked only at him.

Chris gave a general “Good-night,” and went directly into his room.

Merry went into her room and spent the night weeping.

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