My short extraordinary friendship with Malvin Vigneault began over half a century ago when some obscure clerk cut orders for two basic training graduates from Ft. Benning to satisfy a manpower need in I Company. Friendship is, in the end, inexplicable. It starts because bunks happen to be across from one another, first words are vaguely right, each sizing up the other and finding nothing wrong.
Then we crossed the Channel. Early morning behind hedges waiting for the tanks we were to follow and sour red wine in five gallon gas cans for those who could stomach it. And the world cold, cold blue everywhere. You woke up in it, ate in it, walked in it, dug holes in it, slept in it.
It was even colder when we moved north to Luxembourg and the Bulge, crowded onto trucks with rifles upright between our knees, and feet that progressed beyond numbness into cold pain when you tried to curl your toes.
One night in a farmhouse, pulled back for rest and recuperation, the call went out for volunteers for the Tiger Patrol. The master sergeant went from isolated group to isolated group making his spiel. A special duty group was being formed to perform battalion scouting operation. Volunteers would be temporarily assigned to Battalion Headquarters. Anyone interested?
I raised my hand. Malvin raised his. “Why did we do that?” Malvin asked later. “I don’t know,” I answered. But I think I did know – at least, semi-consciously – that this was part of our great secret, unspoken plan – to experience everything. We were on earth so short a time. There was no time to waste. We had no choice. While war may be hell for some, for others it is an opportunity. The closer one comes to risking his life, the latter view maintains, the more intense is his awareness of it.
Two o’clock in the morning, an impromptu group – I, Malvin and Frank Senger – is formed to patrol the road out of Nuendorff to detect enemy presence. Really wonderful moonlight behind thin clouds. Silver gray the sky, and silver gray the snow all around. Senger, out front, signals to spread out, but, generally we follow the road, since it would have been too slow on the snow covered fields on either side.
We may have been the victims of chance, but I still do not think so. The shells hit the road so accurately, so in-our-midst as we were passing. During the years since, my mind has expanded the scene to include the other actor in it. And with every retelling in my mind the motion becomes slower and slower.
A shivering observer on the hill sees us in his binoculars, smiles to himself, his other hand holding a shell moves quickly to the mouth of the mortar, and waits for the exact moment. The shell slips through his fingers, is taken smoothly by gravity, is impaled momentarily on the firing pin. The shell lifts in a perfect parabola into the night sky, gravity erodes its verticality of the mortar tube. Such velocity is beyond the speed of sound, so you cannot, hear it coming.
On the ground, afterwards, I know I have been hit. Senger motions me back. My leg and my hand have been hit. My wool glove is warm with blood, and then immediately cold and heavy with blood. Senger looks at Malvin and leaves him there. We return to camp.
Nothing more to say. That was the ending and the beginning of it. When a friend that close is selectively chosen to die, he leaves questions as well as grief. Every night for two months at the General Hospital, after I returned to the company in Plauen, and then on to Camp Chesterfield, there was that one overwhelming question. Why was I spared and why was he taken?
There was no answer then, there is no answer now. After all, there is no rule requiring life to be fair; there is no rule requiring life to reveal its mysteries.