Uncle Ralph lived in the nursing home on the southern side of town, a solitary building on a low hill, low-slung, horizontal. It was built in 1912, the architect a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, the cost raised by subscription and a modest rise in property taxes. Everyone agreed it was a fine facility. The staff consisted of one doctor and three capable nurses, more than adequate to care for the twenty-two residents, ten men and twelve women, all but one in their seventies and eighties. Uncle Ralph was fifty-two. He occupied a small room on the second floor with a distant view of the Daggett River and the nine-hole golf course beyond. Everett Nursing Home was run loosely. Family and friends could visit anytime they wanted between ten a.m. and eight p.m. Two of the men and four women were senile and did not leave their rooms. Uncle Ralph was known as the Sergeant because he was a veteran of the Great War, a survivor of the Western Front. His memory was phenomenal, story after story tumbling from it in a husky baritone. Everyone knew that among his many wounds was a slice of shrapnel to the throat. Uncle Ralph was fond of standing at the window of his room and remarking that the golf course’s sand traps reminded him of the craters left by artillery bombardments in the war, except the craters were much deeper, eight, ten feet in places, whereas the sand traps were shallow. Also, there were fewer sand traps than craters. Still, when he looked at the sand traps he thought of bomb craters. The foursomes on the golf course reminded him of infantry. Nine irons became Mausers, and billed caps the heavy iron helmets of the German army.
Uncle Ralph’s Saturday-afternoon audience was his nephew Ned Ayres, little Neddy, a bright and inquisitive boy who never seemed to tire of his uncle’s war stories. Listen carefully, Uncle Ralph would say in his husky voice. This was July 1918. We were closing on Ludendorff’s forty divisions. We moved out at dawn from Meaux and marched east to Trilport. From Trilport to Changis and Favant and Nogen and Charly and, at last, Château Thierry. They were just little French villages, some of them deserted or mostly deserted. The weather was warm and our boots kicked up a storm of dust from the roads, French dust. We don’t have dust like that here in Indiana. The dust was frightful. Choking dust. You could suffocate from it and when the dust got bad enough you put on your gas mask. You were unable to get away from it, damned dust. In your hair and eyes and your boots and your ?— ?and here Uncle Ralph glanced at Neddy, pausing fractionally ?— ?crotch. It was in your ears and under your fingernails. It blotted out the sky, you see, and that was a good thing because the Hun air force was about, deadly bastards. God, they were vicious. Later that day we had a soft rain that put down the dust even though it remained in your pockets and eyelids. Never seen anything like it here in Indiana. I don’t know how they managed to live there day by day, the French peasant class. Filthy stuff, dust.
Ugh, Neddy said, glancing furtively at his uncle, whose voice had risen as if he were on a parade ground. Uncle Ralph was shaped like a barrel, short of stature, entirely bald with scars here and there on his head and arms. He wore thick-lensed wire spectacles and heavy workman’s shoes. His hands were dainty, unlike
the rest of him. His light blue eyes were mere slits behind the spectacles and his eyelids. Now he coughed twice, a kind of lumbar whistle.
Château Thierry was the objective. The front line. Beyond it was Ludendorff in person. The crown prince ?— ?Kronprinz ?— ?was there somewhere too. Forty divisions spread over a hundred miles, a killing ground all right. Uncle Ralph paused there, collecting himself, his eyes half shut as if he were struggling for something, a name or a face, some fugitive emotion or buried memory. And then he smiled. Rubbed his hands together and leaned close to Neddy. He said, This is confidential. Between us. I’m going to tell you a secret, the way things were back then.
We saw the Hun from a distance. They came from the forest into twilight. Wolves were among them, mangy creatures, undisciplined, furtive in the shadows. And then the wolves vanished and the German infantry was in our midst. They were big men, most of them bearded. They had had a bad time of it, you could see that. They were weary. And they carried gifts, candy bars and chocolate bears, bunches of flowers. They looked half starved but they couldn’t’ve been friendlier. Some of them spoke English. Only a few were armed, their Mausers slung over their shoulders, barrels down. Up close they were not fearsome. They were playful as children, these German boys, asking questions and not always waiting for answers. Why, they stayed with us an hour or more. Of course we had come to a halt. The light rain continued to fall as the sky darkened. We were still miles from Château Thierry but no one seemed to mind. They began slowly to drift away, our German enemy. They disappeared into the rain one by one. The colonel commanding removed his shako and gave us a friendly wave. Auf Wiedersehen. He was a fine-looking officer, at ease on his horse. Darkness continued to fall until at last there was only us Americans. Our expeditionary force. We were alone. The ground around us was littered with candy wrappers and flower petals. You know, Neddy, there’s goodness in everyone. The goodness must be sought out and accepted when you find it. Often it’s buried deep, depending on the situation, the time of day and so forth. The challenge. So, we set off with light hearts. Our morale was good. We marched on and didn’t reach Château Thierry until well after midnight. Gosh, we were bushed. We’d had it by then, don’t you see. At dawn the guns began to fire and we marched off in the direction of the guns.
Uncle Ralph stopped there and lit a cigarette, his fingers trembling.
At a sudden noise behind him, Neddy turned. His father was in the doorway.
Hi Neddy, hi Ralph.
Eric, Ralph said.
I’ve heard the most wonderful story, Neddy said.
You’re lucky, his father said. Your Uncle Ralph has a million of them.
I’m tired, Ralph said.
No wonder, Eric said.
What do you mean by that?
It’s tiring, telling stories, don’t you think?
I suppose, Ralph said.
Eric Ayres looked at his watch. Is there anything you need?
I want to take a nap, Ralph said.
Well, Eric said. Next Saturday, then.
Neddy was on his feet, his hand on his uncle’s shoulder. Ralph did not respond, his eyes half shut once again. Neddy knew he was in another place, not here, somewhere private. He knew from past experience that his uncle would not speak again. He looked up at his father, so lean and tall.