From our position in the tree line I eyed the beach, surveying its length for any sign of the enemy. The six other soldiers in my group crouched beside me, all silent and gripping their rifles, white-knuckled. Explosions rumbled closer than any of us cared for. We had been thrown together during the chaos of the past day, and even though we knew little of one another we already felt like brothers. Being surrounded by an enemy who took no prisoners had a strange effect on one’s mind. Priorities changed. Which was why we’d risked capture or death to come to this spot, already without a radio or any feasible means of escape. When one of the men finally said what the rest of us were thinking, terror mixed with relief passed through me.
“Do you think we can make it?”
Satisfied the beach was clear down either end, I turned toward his voice and realized the others were staring at me. I was not their leader — our rightful one lay dead miles behind us — but for some reason the others looked to me now for an answer. I didn’t want to be the one to decide, it wasn’t my job and I hadn’t done anything to set myself apart from them. I winced.
So, we waited. It was a beautiful day in the tropics, if you didn’t count the carnage we’d seen. The sun had risen to clear skies, and now in late afternoon its rays turned the ocean into a million twinkling coins. Sea birds flew overhead, and I couldn’t help but feel envious of their wings. Had this been an ordinary day I could have seen the others and me playing games of tug-a-war in the sand, chicken-fighting in the surf with girls giggling on our shoulders. But this was no ordinary day. There were no girls. Since dawn, half our force had been wiped out, and our collective sense reasoned that some or all of us might not survive to see dusk.
A skinny kid whose name I didn’t know spoke up.
“I say we do what he suggests. Agreed?”
Eyes all on me. Damn it. Who had crowned me leader? To a man, they nodded. An offhand comment from one of the men had born this decision. We’d all laughed at the suggestion, the absurdity of such a thing. I couldn’t remember the phrase — something about gallows and humor.
“Okay, let’s do it,” I said, and we picked up to move. First at a crouch, moving along the tree line. A series of dunes stretched over this part of the beach, and although it seemed counterintuitive to do so, I made the decision to climb the highest one in order to surveil the other side. Our mission here seemed foolhardy enough; walking blind around any obstruction without as much as an attempt to gain intelligence would simply have been poor soldiering.
Leaving my rifle with the group below, I crawled up the back slope, sticking as close to the limited scraggly brush as possible. I felt naked. No doubt snipers littered the area, and at any moment one of them behind our position could take me out with ease. If death at all, make it quick. I’d seen the agony of the hopelessly wounded and wanted zero part in it.
I crested the dune and peered over the edge. Nothing on that side of any of the dunes, from what I could determine. Nothing except sand and surf, and those million twinkling coins. I gave the thumbs up and watched the others teepee their rifles before following my lead. I’d figured they’d move around the dune, so as not to increase their own exposure, but being I still lived and breathed I’m sure they assumed no one had eyes on this area. That, and the view. It was breathtaking up there. If nations had not rattled their swords in this way the scene could have been cut from a movie. One came to mind, a black and white affair where a man and woman rolled together in the surf. I tried to remember the title but couldn’t. Something about forever, or the like. And that made me wonder — would I ever roll in the surf with a beautiful woman, or any woman at all? I was caught in this thought when I realized the others now watched the ocean alongside me, watched it roll in from a thousand miles away. It had been the kid from Montana who’d said it first, a joke really, then the rest of us had followed suit. Craziness. Suicide. And for what purpose? But here we were, seven of us alone and grinning out at an ocean none of us had ever touched before in our lives.
I detailed our plan. Keep uniforms on. Boots too. We would have no time to put them back on if we were spotted, and should we be lucky enough to escape alive, a night without them in the dark jungle would be unbearable, enemy or no.
We slid down the other side and popped to our feet in a full run. The sand here was softer than expected, and with each step I felt we’d be seen for sure. How many times had I run a hundred yards? I asked myself, arms pumping. I chastised that fool youth for not seeing his future self so exposed, his own life at such risk. I mocked him for making that distance without care or worry on so many occasions — on playgrounds or ball fields or splashing through the rain. Had I one wish, other than making it safely home, it would have been to tell my younger self those things. Take care, love more, feel wintry air without complaint, suffer sickness in delight. Grasp any discomfort, breathe it, consume it, fold yourself in it like some dusty blanket. Some day you will run toward waves you have never touched and wonder if each step closer will be your last. The crack of a rifle. An exploding shell. A ghastly injury followed by the point of a bayonet. Take care, youth of self. Life is fragile. Always remember, fates exist far worse than death.
The water neared and still I lived. The wind came strong and the sound of my own heart crashed in my ears. I felt — no, I knew — that if I looked back I’d never make it. A sniper watching through his scope would decide to shoot the one who dared look back. A game of war. Eeny-meenie-miney-moe. I steeled my gaze ahead, my heart in my throat. As I strode into the surf, slogging my way deeper, deeper still, I listened for the sound of the others behind me. I was alone, or I was not. The sea, I found, changed things. It swallowed you, blinded and removed from you all other things, until you surrendered to it, gave it all power. I dove beneath a wave and felt a force pull me outward. For a moment I allowed it, felt myself float in the salty current, and then a reversal as the wave above me passed and then I shot upward, back into the sun-bleached air.
Chest deep, I looked around me and saw only waves. Then, one by one, the rest of them surfaced. We looked to one another, silent at first, collecting in each our thoughts the significance of this thing among us. And then it happened. Together, a wild cry erupted from us and we were children, splashing and playing, pushing and dunking, laughing and whooping. We stayed for minutes, hours, eternities. But soon we’d be seen, and to die in the sea seemed absurd, a waste. I cannot say for the others, but I swallowed one mouthful of sea water so that its own spirit should stay with me for all my days, or minutes if God so chose.
Emerging from that sea, our uniforms dripping their final vestiges of childhood, we plodded back to collect our rifles. How many of our eyes would soon stare blank and glassy into the sky, we did not know. But we commanded our own lives, seven generals, and aside from the sea that was all we could ask.
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