By Sgt. Merle Miller

When Hayward came into the orderly room, the captain was sitting at what had once been a dining room table, and Hayward didn’t salute him, deliberately didn’t salute him.

The captain had been reading his hometown newspaper and when he looked up Hayward noticed for the first time how old he looked, old for his age. The captain was 25, as every man in the company knew, and he had just been graduated from college when he got in the Army, and, as everybody always added, was too young to have a company anyway. But in the twilight the captain looked old, and Hayward saw that there were flecks of grey in his hair and that the circles under his eyes were dark and permanent-looking.

lucky bastard WWII YANK magzine“The jeep’ll be here in about ten minutes,” the captain said, glancing at his watch.

“Yes,” said Hayward, consciously omitting the word “sir.”

“Well, it won’t be long now, will it?” the captain asked.

“No,” said Hayward, mimicking his tone ever so slightly. “It won’t be long now.”

“You all fixed up, your service record and everything?” the captain asked.

“All fixed up.”

“I guess you’ll be wearing that blue serge in a month or so.”

“I’m planning on tweeds,” said Hayward, “nice soft tweeds, maybe a brown, and a red necktie, I think, and brogans, two-tone brogans and a snapbrim hat. And silk socks. Certainly silk socks.”

“Well,” said the captain, and repeated, “well, you’ll stop in for a drink at the Commodore Bar when you get off the train at Grand Central and You’ll get a taxi and ride up 42d Street and turn off at Fifth and maybe cruise around for awhile, and there’ll be the girl, and you’ll stop some place with her and eat, and you’ll have thick steak and onions and fresh strawberries—there’ll still be strawberries, won’t there—and coffee, several cups of coffee in thin porcelain cups, and then maybe a benedictine and brandy. And, then—God knows what then.”

“No strawberries,” said Hayward. “Strawberries won’t be in season. I’ll have deep-dish apple pie, I think, and a slab of roquefort cheese. And scotch and soda, no brandy. You can have brander here. Cognac. Brandy. But no scotch. Never any scotch.

“You’re perfectly right,” said the captain. “Perfectly right.”

“Well,” said Hayward, “I better be going now. I mean I want to say good-bye to the boys.”

“I guess I’ll be staying,” said the captain. “I guess I’ll stay right there.”

It was true that Hayward never liked the captain, but he remembered the night in the Ardennes. They were out of touch with battalion and with regiment and division, and everyone said they were surrounded by paratroopers and SS and nothing was happening and it was worse than if something was. They talked in whispers because they were afraid. Nobody said it but everybody knew it, and they were just waiting in the little Belgian farm house. “We’re probably surrounded,” someone said. “The bastards are probably all around us, and we don’t know it.” “So long,” said someone else. “So long to B Company. B Company Kaput.” “Whyn’t we go back?” asked someone. “Regiment and battalion have probably pulled back and we’re sitting here. Like ducks. Like shooting gallery ducks. If he had some sense, we’d pull out.” The captain had come in from outside in time to hear what was being said and he had looked old that night too, although he was younger than most of the men in the room. “I guess we’ll be staying.” he had said. “I guess we’ll stay right here.” That was all he had said but that was enough.

The captain stood up and held out his hand, and Hayward shook it firmly and remembered that he had never shaken the captain’s hand before and wanted to say something but didn’t. Just remembered that in three years in the company he had never happened to shake the captain’s hand before.

“Good luck,” the captain said.

“Thanks,” said Hayward, and that was all. He did not add the “sir.”

The radio was on in the billet, and the small Nazi flag was still on top of the table along with the Bible, just as they found it. There was a poker game going on, and a couple of men were reading books. There was some conversation.

Hayward’s B1 bag was standing by his bed, his overcoat flung over it.

“All I need is a cluster for my Purple Heart, one tiny piece of shrapnel in a leg and one goddamn cluster and that’d make 87 points and I’d be going with you.”

“Or one more battle star,” added someone else. “We’d never’ve noticed one more small battle.”

“You’re a lucky bastard,” said Shumaker, “a lucky bastard.”

Shumaker had said that in the Hurtgen, too. Hayward couldn’t remember who it was now, one of those replacements who’d been evacuated with what seemed like a slight wound, and they had just heard that he had died in a battalion aid station, and they were expecting a counterattack and there were tree bursts and the temperature was around zero. Shumaker had said the same thing then and in almost the same way. “He’s a lucky bastard,” Shumaker had said of the dead man, “a lucky bastard.”

The jeep driver stuck his head in the door of the billet. “You the one that’s going?” he asked Hayward. “You the one with 94 points?”

“Yes,” said Hayward. “I’m the one.”

“Get the lead out,” said the driver. “I want to get back before midnight.”

Hayward picked up his B1 bag and slung the strap over his shoulder.

“Need any help?” asked Johnson, looking up from his cards.

Johnson had joined the outfit two nights before they crossed the Rhine, and he was older than most of them. He was a man in his late 30s, and he was bitter. He had been a clerk in an ordnance outfit in Paris before he was reclassified. And the night they jumped off for the Rhine crossing he had lost his head. “We’ll never make it,” he had said. “I’ll never make it anyway. I can feel it.  I’ll never get across. I can’t swim, you know. I never swam a stroke in my life,” and he had begun to weep, quietly and horribly. Hayward hadn’t known what to do at first, and he hadn’t said anything for a minute, and then he made his voice stern and hard. “Shut the hell up or I’ll knock your teeth down your throat,” he had said, and Johnson had looked up at him, incredulous, and then shut up, and after that he had been all right.

“No,” Hayward answered. “I can manage.”

He picked up his overcoat.

“Don’t forget to call that number,” someone said. Hayward didn’t notice who it was but it didn’t matter. They had all given him numbers to call.

No one looked up when he started toward the door and when he opened it the announcer on the radio was saying something about non-fraternization and somebody switched it off, and the room was silent except for a not-very-good pen scratching on not-very-good paper. And the slap of the cards on the porcelain-topped table. And Hayward thought of the night he had first seen the room, when the next house was still occupied by Germans and there was a machine gun down the street,

“Well, so long,” he said.

“So long,” they repeated, all together but not in unison and with no particular enthusiasm.

“So long,” Hayward said again as he closed the door and paused for a minute outside it.

“Get the lead out,” said the driver, who was already in the jeep. “I want to get back before midnight.”

“So long,” Hayward said for a third time, to the men, to the house, to the rubble-strewn town, to Germany, to the Continent, to the Army. And he was glad it was dark by then, completely dark and moonless.

For Further Reading Check Out:

The Lucky Bastard Club: Letters to My Bride from the Left Seat

Angel on My Shoulder: I’ve Joined the Lucky Bastard Club

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